03/28/2011 05:28 pm ET Updated May 28, 2011

The Contract Society: It's Time to Become Citizens Not Customers

In October of 2006, the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said on the floor of the Senate that "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state... I will resign from this body." Stevens was not using this threat to protect the civil liberties of the people of his state. He was instead objecting to a proposal to redirect $453 million in highway funds earmarked for two Alaska bridges to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. One of the bridges, at a projected cost of $223 million, would connect a small town to an island and thus was dubbed by critics as the "Bridge to Nowhere."

As any resident of West Virginia well knows, pork was not just an Alaskan or Republican thing. The late Senator Robert Byrd ensured that political earmarks flowed to the East Coast and Democrats too. The practice has grown like a mushroom in the damp shade in recent years. In 1991, the 13 major appropriations bills in Congress contained 546 pork barrel projects costing $3.1 billion. By 2005, the total of number of pork projects was 13,997 and the cost had increased to $27.3 billion. The level dropped last year -- fiscal sanity of sorts -- to 10,160 projects for a total of $19.6 billion.

Welcome to the contract society. In the contract society, "citizens" have become government's "customers," and they judge government by how satisfied they are with what they get. In the contract society, the governors use opinion polls to guide them, intent on delivering what the governed demand (or at least appearing to do so) -- leading not so much by the "consent of the governed" as by their orders. In the contract society, elected officials had better keep promises or they can expect to be turned out of office -- even if those promises seem no longer so promising for the public good. In the contract society, fund raising is a full-time endeavor and those who supply the cash expect the implied contract to be fulfilled.

Indeed, the notion of politicians contracting with those who elect them was at the heart of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the famous "Contract with America." The 2010 Republican "Pledge for America" was an effort to tap into the same idea.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with elected officials representing their constituents. That is what the Constitution charges them to do. But contracting with customers is much different than representing citizens. Its pervasiveness in our public life poses dangers. By adopting contractual thinking, we accept a style of interaction that may be desirable in a business context but is dangerous for republican governance.

Contracts are formal, rigid, and highly specific arrangements. They replace the need for trust (or make up for the lack of it), as Frances Fukuyama noted so well in his book of the same name (Trust, 1996). Contracts are generally short-term, both in real time and in our emotional attachments. We end them when they no longer serve our needs.

The danger of extending the contract model into our public life is growing. This shows up in a variety of ways:

  • Entitlements, the largest (and looming much larger) share of the federal budget represent a contract that most politicians are afraid to change, even as it becomes more unsustainable.
  • Congressional earmarks for pet causes not only represent a large expenditure but turn Americans away from creatively competing for discretionary federal assistance, with the innovation that such competition brings.
  • Political promise making -- and the fear of what well-funded special interests will do if the promises are not fulfilled -- pushes elected officials to pander to powerful interests when this might conflict with the public good.
  • Contracts encourage us to focus on what we get now. Short-term benefits -- the heart of the contract model -- replace the need for long-term thinking and the sacrifices needed to reach long-term goals.

The contract society is so well embedded that we wonder if there is any other way. There is. It will require a change in our thinking as well as our behavior to find it. We will have to ask of ourselves what it means to be a "citizen" rather than a "customer," which means we will have to ask what is in the public interest not just our personal interest.

This has all the trappings of utopian thinking, especially since many of us we have been retreating from citizenship for some time. In only four of the last ten federal elections (1990-2008), have more than fifty percent of Americans of voting age actually voted. With no draft or required national service, it becomes easy to not think about what sacrifice we may owe our country. Even in the matter of paying federal income taxes, over forty percent of Americans no longer meet the criteria to do so. Imagine how Kennedy's inaugural plea to "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" would be received today.

America, of course, is the product of utopian thinking. If we rarely create the society we seek, we rarely fail to do better when we try. It's time to try again. The answer to many of our ills will be found in the language of citizenship and commitment, not the language of customers and contracts.