A Balance Sheet for Civic Capital
Democracy as a Learning Organization
This is the fourth of our chapters on the broad theme of Core Asset Balance Sheets. Civic capital is indeed one of society’s core assets. It takes in everything from highways and property records to the post office and the nation’s state universities. And much of what is properly understood as civic capital has a dual role – many pieces of civic capital also function as societal sectors in their own right. Look at society from an asset perspective, and we will see civic capital. Our body of law is a civic asset. Our Congress as a constitutionally defined institution is a civic asset. Look at society from a sector perspective, and we will see public sector institutions. This year’s Congress at work, adjusting the law, is an operating sector.
Before getting to specifics, though, let’s set the stage by likening the process of democracy to the process of change in a learning organization. Many organizational environments are understood as learning environments. A smart corporation learns from its environment, modifies its behaviors, and continues to thrive. An effective military learns from its battles. It reviews its experience, critiques its successes and failures, and adjusts accordingly. In medicine, an effort is being made to establish evidence based medicine. Capture learning from across thousands of diseases and millions of patients, distill the lessons into computer assisted diagnostic tool, and give doctors stronger tools for diagnosing even the most elusive of diseases. Science has always been a learning discipline: Postulate a hypothesis, design a test, gather measurements, critique the results.
Democracy in a very rough way is also a learning organization. Experience a complaint. Pass a law. See if the complaint goes away. If it does, leave the law alone. If it doesn’t, change the law.
We are in challenging times. The capacity to learn is important everywhere, in civic life as in many other areas of life. What if we think of America not merely as a democracy, but as a learning democracy?
A nation without a capacity to learn will see its competencies wither; a nation with a capacity to learn has a chance to improve its competencies considerably.
Democracy – Clearing up the Semantics
There is one more preliminary matter to address before sketching a Civic Capital Balance Sheet. Confusion exists among some about the distinction between “democracy” and “republic.” One school of thought contends that America was intended to be a republic, not a democracy.
As I see it, this confusion arises primarily from a shift in usage. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, back in 1787, the term “democracy” was taken to mean direct democracy, one man one vote democracy, New England town meeting democracy. And, to some, mob democracy. The civic leaders assembled in Philadelphia were not interested in creating a republic based on direct democracy. On the other hand, they had no interest in creating a republic based upon rule by an aristocracy. Their new Constitution explicitly prohibited the granting of titles of nobility. (Article I, Section 9)
Today, some twenty-two decades later, our usage has changed. When we say “democracy” we normally mean representative democracy, not town meeting democracy. If we want to refer to the New England Town Meeting flavor, we call it “direct democracy.” We have shifted the meaning of the term democracy.
To the Founders, America was to be a republic, not a monarchy. And America was to be a republic based on the rule of the people, exercised through institutions of representative democracy. The House of Representatives was the purer form of representative democracy. Senators were to be chosen by state legislatures, which in turn were also structured on principles of representative democracy.
Yes, in 1787, the unresolved issues were profound. Many Americans were slaves. Women had no vote. Men who were not property owners didn’t always have the right to vote. But the framework for overcoming those evils was already present.
It is an interesting debate – were we meant to be a republic rather than a democracy – but not an especially fruitful one. Those who engage the debate misunderstand and misrepresent the the founders’ actual views. The early America republic was an anti-aristocratic union. Our nation was meant from the beginning to function as a republic, its leaders to be chosen primarily through the mechanisms of representative democracy. We are still aligned with our founding purpose.
(19.1 Version 2011-06-27)