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Good Citizens

I have been asked to address students at an Indiana High School on “Good Government Day.” My assignment was to describe to them the attributes of a good citizen.

Here’s what I plan to tell them. (Constructive criticism is welcome!)

Good governments require good citizens. If there is one thing that history has taught us, it is that without good citizens to hold government accountable, power really does corrupt those who exercise it.

So the question becomes: what makes a good citizen? I think that there are three requirements topping the list: Constitutional literacy, critical thinking skills, and the willingness to pay one’s dues.

What do I mean by each of these?

Let’s start with Constitutional literacy. You simply can’t be a good, responsible citizen if you are ignorant of the history and philosophy of your own country. A week or so ago, Newsweek Magazine ran an article titled “How Ignorant Are You?” It was a quiz, with questions taken from the tests immigrants have to pass in order to become citizens. The percentages of Americans who could answer the questions correctly were embarrassing—for most of them, it was less than 30%. There are literally hundreds of other surveys that confirm how little most Americans know about their own system: two-thirds of us don’t even know that we have three branches of government!

If you don’t know what the Enlightenment was, and how it shaped our constitutional system, if you don’t understand that the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect individual rights both from government and from the majority, if you don’t understand the difference between civil liberties and civil rights, you can be a good person, but I would argue that you don’t know enough to be a good citizen.

Constitutional and historic literacy are just the beginning. You also need critical thinking skills.

What I mean by critical thinking skills is the ability to tell the difference between facts and garbage. One of the reasons that Constitutional literacy and an analytical mind are such important parts of good citizenship is that the world is a more complicated place than it used to be, especially when it comes to the oceans of information we get every day. The internet is a wonderful thing—I’m not sure how I survived before google—but because it brings so much unfiltered material into our lives, the ability to separate factual, credible information from spin and propaganda is more important than it has ever been. If you don’t know what the Constitution and Bill of Rights really say, or how the Courts have defined and interpreted what they say, you’re a lot more likely to believe that forwarded email you got from your crazy Uncle Ray.

In the last few years, we have seen incredible changes in the media. Fewer people read newspapers or even watch the evening news on television, and more and more of us get our information on line. Some of that is great, some of it isn’t. We are in danger of losing real journalism—where people monitor what government does, where they fact-check and provide context and background. Instead, we have mountains of unsubstantiated opinion, PR and spin. Good citizens have to be able to separate fact from fantasy. They have to live in the world as it is, not in a bubble where they listen only to things that confirm what they already believe—and the internet makes it so easy and tempting to construct that bubble. At the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, we are so concerned about this issue that we have established a new undergraduate major in Media and Public Affairs. So far, it is the only major of its kind in the country.

Finally, the third quality of a good citizen:  Willingness to pay one’s dues—taxes. This one isn’t going to make me any friends, but it’s true. We’ve had 25 years of politicians telling us that taxes are like theft, that they are government stealing our money.  Not so. Taxes are the price we pay to live in a society that makes it possible for us to earn a living and live in safe communities. Taxes pay for everything from national defense to paved roads to air safety to garbage collection. Tax dollars pay for the school you attend, the parks you play in, the police and firefighters who keep you safe. Don’t misunderstand—good citizens are diligent watchdogs of the public purse, because there’s nothing virtuous or patriotic about waste or duplication—but they are also willing to pay their fair share without whining about it.

Think about a basketball team where some players just don’t pull their weight, or clubs you belong to where most of the members let a few people do all the work. Most of us don’t think very highly of the slackers. Good citizens aren’t slackers—they do their share. And that includes paying their share.

There are lots of other behaviors that characterize good citizens—voting, keeping up on the news, serving on juries, working for a political party or for a cause you believe in—all the things we mean when we encourage civic engagement. But if you aren’t civically literate—if you don’t know the basics of our history and constitutional system—your vote won’t be as informed.

If you don’t have the ability to assess the credibility of the news and commentary you are receiving, you won’t get the whole story, or the accurate account, and you will make decisions based on bad information.

And if you accept public services—police protection, garbage collection, paved roads, education and so many more—but you don’t pay your fair share of taxes, you aren’t a citizen at all. You’re a freeloader.

At the end of the day, being a good citizen requires a lot more than just being born in the United States. It’s more than wearing a flag pin, or being proud of what this country has accomplished. Being a good citizen means doing your part to move America forward, it means helping this country of ours live up to its highest ideals. And that requires civic knowledge, intellectual honesty and a willingness to contribute time, effort and tax dollars to our common civic enterprise.