Democracy's Description

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 15:30

A conservative elected official referred rather pointedly the other day to the world of business and commerce as "the productive sector."Naturally, I sniffed in his linguistic formulation the hand of Frank Luntz, Newt Gingrich's political language guru famous for popularizing terminology like "the death tax."Luntz or no, one implication embedded in using "productive sector" to describe business is that American democracy's two other distinctive sectors - government and the independent, nonprofit community - don't measure up to business's scale or impact.That's true if you measure a productive nation merely on the basis of economic output.By that standard, we're on par with China, not exactly the model Americans aspire to, especially with its command and control politics and absence of civil society.I confess to a strong bias in favor of the essential balancing, the necessary push, pull and compromise among various interests and institutions essential to a healthy democracy.


Yet, since "productive sector" may be a rising label for the commercial economy, what new, enlightening terms might we ascribe to the other two sectors?


We could describe the social sector or civil society more broadly as "the progressive sector." Government we might label "the protective sector."


Progress, of course, comes from many places.But democracy's ever-reliable seedbed of change lies in its vast non-economic, non-governmental reaches.Across backyard fences and in town meetings, clubs and associations, free citizens independent of workplace constraints or government regulation debate ideas, reach consensus, and organize civic, social and political action.They do these things striving for influence, competing to express their views in ways their fellow citizens might join and support.


Government has a prime duty to protect citizens - from foreign enemies, civil unrest, abusive employers, economic destitution, intellectual ignorance and other forms of poverty and social privation.Plenty of players in "the productive sector" lobby and rail against government interference in their conduct.Yet few beyond the most ideologically extreme would argue in any public forum for free enterprise absent clear laws that protect citizens and marketplaces from scoundrels, sociopaths and the rapaciously greedy.


Add up the three words - productive, progressive, protective - and you describe the essence of a robust democratic society, a place most of us hope for and would welcome as our united home.