Economic Incentives for a Better Citizen

Photo: Eddie Colla

For most students and faculty, including myself, the ECLA community lies outside of their home country. We live in a state of which we are not citizens. Nonetheless many of us retain an undiminished concern for the political conditions of the country where we were born.

In such a situation, addressing the question of what one’s citizenship means becomes all the more pressing.

This concern with the status of citizenship was the starting point for a lecture by Bruce Ackerman, Yale University’s Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin on the 17th of November entitled “A New Progressive Agenda for the 21st Century”.

Ackerman is a well known expert on social justice policy and constitutional law in the United States. In his lecture, he proposed that in the contemporary world, citizenship has become little more than a commodity.

This is primarily due to lack of civic participation and a weak sense of identity among the populations of most states. In the light of this situation, Ackerman offers four policies that he believes should be applied globally with local adjustments. He formulates them to address the existential crisis of the modern citizen and to give progressives a challenging agenda at this pivotal point in history.

The first area of public policy ripe for improvement is campaign finance. Ackerman thinks that political parties are not doing enough to pursue the votes of individual citizens. In particular, they are not listening to individual voters’ concerns and demands. Ackerman proposes “patriot dollars” to alleviate this modern deficiency in the political sphere.

This would give every person with a vote fifty dollars to donate to the candidate or party of their choice. The programme is designed to get parties to obtain votes from citizens by cultivating an informed and sustaining membership. Being in a position to fund the agents of politics, potential voters could be expected to become more specific and nuanced in their political preferences. This is tied to Ackerman’s second policy proposal, which he calls “deliberation day”.

In cooperation with Stanford professor James S. Fishkin, Ackerman has been involved in the development of “deliberative polling.” This political science experiment takes a random sample of a population facing an upcoming election, polls the group on issues concerning the election, then arranges for them sessions of discussion and analysis involving those issues, and finally has the group take the poll again.

The expectation of the experiment is that the results of the second poll will be significantly different because the group is substantially better educated on relevant topics, and aware of the reasoning behind contrary opinions. Usually, this outcome is achieved.

Ackerman wants to institutionalize such a polling process, making it available across a country two days before any election. In order for a wide range of socio-economic groups to participate, Ackerman acknowledges that “deliberation day” must be made into a national holiday and small stipends given to participants.

The third proposal is a “national endowment for journalism” which funds journalists whose articles give readers a better sense of citizenship. Like many others, Ackerman is concerned about the threat to legitimate media from the internet’s influence. The endowment is an attempt to ensure the survival of the free and informed press, and undermine the ubiquity of blogs as a means of informing citizens.

Ackerman’s last policy proposal is certainly the most provocative. He believes that citizens must somehow be stakeholders in their state, and plans to achieve this through “citizenship inheritance”. With this measure, a state appropriates any inheritance money that would have gone the deceased’s descendants and instead redistributes it equally among citizens.

Every young adult (the exact age dependent on whether the citizen is attending college or not) receives $80,000 to allow them modest autonomy in choosing the life they want to live. Citizens will then mature in a state feeling sufficiently acknowledged in it, garnering a strong sense of identity, and therefore having a stake in that state’s future.

Are these four proposals compelling? Or are they much more radical and impractical than Ackerman acknowledges? The event at Hertie also hosted a respondent to Ackerman, Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a major contributor to the formulation of German public policy.

She gave a sustained rebuttal of Ackerman’s proposals, invoking the idea that all social progress must be based on economic incentives. She expressed the hope that states would find better systemic approaches to addressing the problems of citizenship that he outlines, such as high quality education and a fairer and more comprehensive form of representative democracy.

In the end, the two goals Ackerman has for these proposals, establishing a better citizenry and giving the progressive movement practical policies to support, do not seem achievable by their means. In America, at least, most of these policies would appear radical and unpersuasive to the population at large, because they are far from any on the current political agenda.

Regarding the question of citizenship, one hopes that a sense of belonging to one’s nation is not based purely on the financial power that nation gives us. Even if a state is not consistently providing for us, we still have passionate concern for the political condition that state finds itself in. If there is a deficiency in the sense of citizenship, maybe it must be filled through one’s own capacity for engagement.

Michael David Harris (AY’12, USA)

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