What We Own and What Owns Us

Monday, December 15, 2014 - 18:00

U.S. Secretary for Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald hoped to make lemonade from lemons when he insisted that “better customer service” would fix all that ails the Department of Veterans Affairs. But, with all due respect (and a guess that he’s seriously underestimating the scope of the VA’s problems), I believe “customer” is an utterly inadequate term for anyone served by government.

Apt in a commercial exchange, the term “customer” reduces the relationship between citizen and government to a mere transaction, which it is not. Businesses market their goods and services to earn customer interest and win customer loyalty. Government institutions don’t have to do that because they aren’t businesses. They do have to earn our confidence by performing well in their appointed tasks. They don’t have to win over our loyalty because we already own them. Much as we seem afflicted with amnesia about the fundamental truth that government institutions belong to us, that’s how a democracy works. Citizens collectively own government and entrust stewardship of its institutions to elected officials and civil servants.

So what happens when we start distancing ourselves from those institutions, believing the manipulative whack-jobs who insist “government is the problem,” and ignoring how our stewards are maintaining what we as citizens own? The institutions go to hell in a hand basket, as my grandmother used to say. Just like the Department of Veterans Affairs, in its corrupted Phoenix office and elsewhere in the system, has gone to hell.

Capitalist economies insist that people consume. Part of this arrangement is that we willingly sell off bits of our loyalty to various brands and businesses – our bank, the stores where we buy clothing and food, our phone service provider, our doctor, this or that auto manufacturer. We’re complicit in allowing a share of ourselves to be owned, which is okay as long as we understand the terms of the deal. We don’t have to do that with government. We’re not government’s customers. We’re more like government’s “privileged beneficiaries,” a fact that elevates what government does for us well above a customer transaction.

Even if we never experience directly the value a public agency provides – not all of us served or will serve in the military, for example – we’re still beneficiaries. We have government institutions in place to head off mass disease outbreaks so our families and communities will survive flu or Ebola epidemics. We want our courts to adjudicate criminal cases and punish the bad guys – regardless of the color of their skin or the cut of their uniform. Our public schools are supposed to educate kids to read, write and think, helping prepare another generation to participate as citizens of a democracy and successfully compete in the workplace. And as tax-paying adults, those kids we invest in need to make sure our social security system stays solvent and our elders age with a modicum of dignity.

We’ve gone a long way in the last 30 years down the dead-end road of denying we own the government institutions we do, in fact, own. Increasingly during that time, we’ve grown more comfortable ceding bits of our loyalty – and our incomes – to businesses adept at making it very attractive for us to be their customers. Before we lose completely the capacity for managing our citizenship stake in public institutions, perhaps we ought to recognize the value and potential of what it is we own together. Maybe then we’ll start to see that it’s really up to us to make sure those institutions live up to our expectations of quality and equality. It’s up to us to make sure our government – directly through our advocacy and certainly through our politically elected stewards – is worth investing with the pride of ownership.