The Limits of Self-Government

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The appalling destruction and loss of life wrought by the F-5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma has brought fresh perspective on existing safety precautions. The size and violence of the tornado called into question the effectiveness of Moore’s “Shelter in Place” policy. In an article in last week’s New York Times, John Schwartz cites “Cost and Plains Culture” to account for the lack of safe rooms in the city’s housing stock.  This simple juxtaposition implies that the independent spirit of “Tornado Alley” is somehow its own worst enemy in the matter of safety and that if the citizens had been more receptive to government regulation, they would have taken extra precautions and more lives would have been saved. There is more to the story, however.

A complex web of factors, including local property tax assessment rules, Plains geology, actuarial estimates, previous tornados, and the state of the economy, together with the regional political culture, has shaped a low probability that homes in Moore will have “safe rooms” built to withstand tornados on the scale of those that ravaged the community in 1999 and earlier this month.

The resistance of Moore residents to mandated safe rooms is just one example of ample evidence that large numbers of Americans distrust government. From the twentieth century welfare and regulatory states to the current IRS scandal to local zoning, suspicion of government is endemic. But an important qualification is in order.

Americans’ dislike of government reflects a positive preference for self-government. The “rugged individualism” evoked in defense of self-government is also a serviceable community spirit, one that prompts spontaneous acts of neighborly assistance, whether the crisis is the tragedy in Moore or the atrocity wrought at the Boston Marathon. The neighborly act assumes that the fund of personal resources on which that neighbor would usually draw—self-motivation, personal responsibility, and management of material needs—has been arrested or exhausted for reasons beyond the neighbor’s control. Absent the tragedy or the atrocity, the tornado or the IED, the neighbor would have taken responsibility for governing his domain, large or small.

The preference for self-government need not be confused with selfishness, nor confined to the culture of the Plains states. Readiness to lend a hand seems to be alive and well, as much on Boylston Street in Boston as in the subdivisions of Moore.  

Self-government is one precondition for a just society because it empowers citizens to carry out their basic responsibilities.  But citizens share responsibilities for society’s well-being with government and non-governmental institutions as well.

Paradoxically, in extolling self-government, American political culture neglects the importance of government and of civil society institutions that bolster effective self-government. Good schools, functioning economies, intact families, and stable governments contribute uniquely to the makeup of our character, reason, and skills.  Both government and citizens should attend to their cultivation and preservation.

The high stakes choices facing the Moore City Council may help the rest of us see more clearly the delicate balance between government and self-government. Up to this point, “Shelter in Place” seems to have been a reasonable policy. The speed at which violent storms may spawn deadly tornadoes does not permit residents to move safely to public shelters in the time available, but the recent tragedy now shows that safe rooms in each home are needed to make that sheltering genuinely safe against the most violent storms.

What can be said for the American political culture, however, is that its preoccupation with the boundaries between state and citizen sovereignty guarantees that these remain under constant scrutiny. That may constitute its peculiar genius. One hopes it will serve the residents of Moore well as they confront costly and difficult choices.

- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.