The Ownership Society

Richard C. Harwood, President, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation President Bush threw the gears into reverse last night at the Republican Convention by offering a hopeful, often visionary speech to the American people. What a difference a day makes! Hang onto your seats. The differences in this campaign are now crystal clear. We'd all benefit if only the candidates would now engage rather than trashtalk each other. There is one theme from the President's speech I want to raise specifically this morning: "the ownership society." The president continually returned to the ideas of liberty, freedom, individual control, ownership -- each and all emphasizing the individual in society, and maximizing their independence. But independence from what and whom? I and others in this space have discussed the extent to which people have been separating from one another in this country. We move to places with like-minded folks. Many Americans have retreated from public life into close-knit circles and behind gated communities. We are told to behave as consumers -- get what you want, when you want it -- 24/7. Sure, let's help every American buy a home and attend college. I have those dreams for my own kids. But I have another dream too: that each of us belongs to the common society. This is not some abstract notion, but a practical aspiration and need. Both candidates need to challenge the American people on this, rather than merely auction off tax cuts and new government programs as a way to win votes. For instance, in the common society:

    • People feel ownership of their government -- that it listens, is responsive, and is not held hostage by special interests, and doesn’t give only lip service to these ideas. • People feel ownership of their involvement -- that the expectation in this society is that each of us will step up and really become involved in our communities, not turn away from them. • People feel ownership of each other -- that is, they see themselves as connected, and so challenges of health care, public schools, and other concerns are framed in terms of what "we, as a society" need, not what "I" want. We must think beyond ourselves. • People feel an ownership of the tone of public life -- that we will come out from our close-knit circles and engage one another, debate and, when possible, find common ground. We simply cannot retreat into our enclaves.

The president's speech creates the expectation of maximized ownership and total liberty in America. But we cannot live alone. John Kerry would do well to heed this message, too. His "middle class contract" is really not a contract at all, where people must reciprocate in fulfilling some obligation, but a bill of goods he is selling the American people. Let's reset the expectations. Let's have a new common society -- where people pursue their individual dreams and work for the public good.