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Tocqueville Surfs
Lessons in self-governance from Obama’s home state
22 May 2009

Many have heard or read about the story of the plucky group of Hawaiians on the island of Kauai, who, faced with the loss of their businesses due to the state government’s inability to open park roads to a popular beach and camping area, took care of matters themselves for a fraction of the cost and time. How very Tocquevillian. Or, better, how very American. The story brings a reflexive smile to everyone who hears it, but the events also cast light on the way governments, at all levels, interact with their communities, and how, in light of significant budget cutbacks, the roles of both are changing.

In his magisterial commentary on nineteenth-century democratic culture, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville compared the initiating sources of public action in European countries with those in the United States: “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.” Tocqueville was struck by how Americans collaborated in common effort, from building hospitals to roads. The Frenchman attributed this American quality to natural causes: without a large government or an aristocratic structure, Americans could “do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”

Last December’s floods washed out park roads, bridges, and facilities at Kauai’s Polihale State Park. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) studied the damage and released a statement two months later, declaring, “We know that people are anxious to get to the beach. However, the preliminary cost estimate of repairs is $4 million.” The DLNR’s response to this natural disaster was to look for more state or federal funds. Its main objective was to grab a fee-generated windfall for the department, ironically entitled the “Recreational Renaissance” fund. DLNR’s chair, Laura Thielen, proclaimed: “We are asking for the public’s patience and cooperation to help protect the park’s resources during this closure, and for their support of the ‘Recreational Renaissance’ so we can better serve them and better care for these important places.” An original timeline for the work was set for late summer, but according to local resident and surfer Bruce Pleas, “It would not have been open this summer, and it probably wouldn’t be open next summer.”

The go-slow approach did not sit well with area residents, who depend on the park for their livelihoods. Ivan Slack, owner of Na Pali Kayaks, which operates from the beach in Polihale, summed up the community’s frustration: “We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part. Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.” Beginning in late March, business leaders and local residents organized together to take the situation into their own hands.

From food donated by area restaurants to heavy machinery offered by local construction companies, a project originally forecast to cost millions and take months (if not years) to complete has been finished in a matter of weeks with donated funds, manpower, and equipment. As Troy Martin from Martin Steel, which provided machinery and five tons of steel at no charge, put it: “We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic, something that took us eight days would have taken them years. So we got together—the community—and we got it done.” Cleaning up the park was a major undertaking involving bridge-building, reconstructing bathroom facilities, and use of heavy equipment to clear miles of flood-damaged roadways.

While unique in its scope, what’s happening on the southwestern coast of Kauai is not unusual. The national budget crisis is making states and cities nationwide take a hard look at the services they offer and find new ways to involve civil society. The organization I head, Common Sense California, works with cities and school districts to chart this new course. As the mayor of cash-strapped Salinas, California, Dennis Donohue, recently told me, “The gap between service expectations by the public and the public sector’s inability to deliver those services needs to be bridged.”

In some respects, governments themselves are to blame for setting these “service expectations.” Beginning in the mid-1980s, the “TQM” (Total Quality Management) craze in private industry found its way into the public sector, and a new language of “service provider” (government) and “customer” (citizen) followed. Government no longer was something to participate in, but something to pay for. We, as citizens, have too easily taken on this role as “customer,” believing our taxes are just the price we pay for the services we desire, whether filling potholes or teaching children. When government does not perform up to expectations, the usual response, running across the ideological spectrum, is either to decry its wastefulness or acquiesce to higher taxes.

The story in Kauai, and others bubbling up around the country, demonstrate that there is a “third way”: gather some friends and pick up a shovel when the government can’t or won’t. Governments need to be open to this kind of direct citizen participation—in fact, they should encourage it. It’s doubtful that the Kauai effort would have occurred at all without the dire financial consequences looming for many of the residents and businesses involved. In the pull of necessity, Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood” manifests itself: “All feel themselves to be subject to the same weakness and the same dangers,” Tocqueville wrote, “and their interest as well as their sympathy makes it a law for them to lend each other mutual assistance when in need.” That about sums up what’s taking place in Kauai.

It’s ironic that this should all be happening in President Obama’s home state. The usually loquacious president has sounded awkward (see his answer to Mike Allen’s question) when attempting to define how he expects Americans to “sacrifice” during this financial crisis. From a policy perspective, the administration’s only responses appear to be raising taxes on the wealthiest 5 percent of earners and increasing federal funding for volunteer programs. During his next trip to Hawaii, he might consider traveling on Kauai’s Route 50 to Polihale State Park to see, and celebrate, what everyday Americans can do when they gather together in common purpose. Thanks to their hard work and sacrifice, surf’s up.

Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California, a multipartisan organization that supports citizen participation in policymaking (his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC). He also lectures on state and local governance at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

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