There is a mistaken notion, deeply embedded in our national political dialogue, that society is naturally divided into public and private sectors. The public sector is thought of as the vehicle for governing society and looking out for the common good. The private sector is where people merely look out for themselves.
Not surprisingly, this view is promoted aggressively by those in the public sector. In this false view of the world, governing is the responsibility of government alone. The vast majority of Americans who work and live in the private sector are told they should study the issues, get involved in campaigns, and vote. After that, the political elites want us to get out of the way and let the so-called experts run things.
In the real world, however, every relationship and organization plays a role in governing society. Our spouses, close family members, and friends play key roles in holding us accountable. They also support us, encourage us, guide us, and lend a helping hand when needed.
Moving beyond the family circle, our commitments to employers and community groups play important roles in our lives but also in terms of governing society. They often exercise authority over us and exert a significant influence over our behavior and schedules. These relationships help us to be productive members of society.
That’s true whether the associations we form are community groups in the traditional geographic sense, online communities, or a workplace. Some groups are as informal as meeting co-workers after work for a beer on Friday afternoons or starting the morning on a power walk with friends. Others are more formal, everything from churches and charities to sports leagues, theater groups, and garden clubs. And, of course, we’re just beginning to understand how Facebook groups and other new forms of community fit into this process.
Few think of these ties as having anything to do with governance, but they are absolutely vital to the governing of society. These formal and informal associations are places where people learn about, process, and begin to act upon the news of the day. That includes everything from what the president said the night before to which companies are hiring or moving away and who is sick and needs some help to get through.
When storms hit, these are the groups that mobilize the community by spreading the word and offering a plan of action. It’s happening right now in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma. Following Hurricane Sandy, the Associated Press reported that people were far more likely to seek and receive help from family, friends and community groups rather than government efforts. Obviously, government has a role to play, but it’s just one of many organizations that help make a healthy society work. In fact, the formal government rarely has the lead role.
We need to replace the mistaken view that governing is the responsibility of government alone with a more realistic recognition that that most governing of society takes place closer to home. On a day-in and day-out basis, community organizations and relationships play a bigger role in governing our society than the rules, regulations, and policies of the formal government.