Capitalism, Community, and Citizenship

Sunday’s episode of This American Life provided plenty of food for thought. The hour was devoted to stories about various fights about extracting the natural gas from the Marcellus shale below Pennsylvania. Several points in the broadcast led me to reflect upon citizenship, capitalism, and community.

During the first act of the program, a politician called for (and perhaps succeeded in implementing?) a zero-tax policy regarding natural gas extraction. The argument in favor is a capitalist one: lower taxes will help Pennsylvania compete with neighboring states to attracting businesses that will provide jobs. At the state universities, capitalism seems to reign supreme as well, directly or indirectly setting the research agendas of scientific and public policy departments and their faculty.

Act Two focuses on the battle over drilling in Mt. Pleasant township. There again we see the logic of capitalism at work. The drilling company promotes itself through leases and well-placed donations. There’s really nothing sinister about any of this. Money is the basis of capitalism and its primary unit of communication. The best companies are those that succeed at making the most money and spending it only as necessary to secure further profit.

But what’s the long-term impact of all of this on our communities? One of the greatest benefits of a political system built on citizenship is that a concern for the community is built right in. After all, the status of ‘citizen’ would be worthless in the absence of a community, state, or nation to which one belonged. It’s worth evaluating each of the examples above by the separate standards of capitalism and citizenship:


1. Suppose you are a governor and find that your state is sitting on heretofore untapped wealth. The capitalism model suggests that you should do all you can to lure the necessary extraction industry, bringing with it the promise of new jobs and increased spending – a much needed economic boost in difficult times. To outbid any potential competitors, you might even decide to lower taxes on the industry to zero.

But the citizenship model raises some troubling questions: Why should the new businesses have exclusive authority to decide how the new-found wealth will be distributed? Why shouldn’t the new businesses pay their share of the costs for the infrastructure that makes their economic activities possible and the state livable for their employees? If this is really going to be the centerpiece of a new future for your state, how can you leave that future in the hands of profit-oriented businesses? Finally, why should this new industry, the centerpiece of your new economic hopes, be treated any differently from existing businesses also providing crucial jobs in the state?


2. Public and state-supported higher education in this nation is growing increasingly individualized along the capitalist model. By this I mean that, as costs continue to rise state and local governments continue to cut funding and raise tuition/fees. As a result, individual students and families increasingly bear the brunt of college costs. Diminishing state funding isn’t just impacting students. It also forces research universities to look elsewhere for funding. Since he who pays the piper calls the tune, this means research agendas are increasingly set by corporations. Again, there’s nothing sinister about those providing the funding wanting to set the agenda. That’s the capitalist system.

The citizenship model suggests the opposite approach to higher education and research. If the goals of a public university are to provide for a more educated citizenry, a more vibrant community, and advances the can benefit the lives of all, we need to fund them on that basis. Valuing each student as a citizen of the community means providing funding on a communal basis at a level that will put higher education within the reach of all who qualify themselves scholastically, not only those with the sufficient personal and familial financial resources. It also means funding research broadly so that scientists and other scholars can follow the results of their research wherever it leads. Sometimes that research will point them in opposite directions. For example, in favor of and in opposition to business priorities. But if we’re going to make informed public policy decisions, we need all the answers we can get, not just answers to the questions that businesses want to investigate.


3. The third example is trickiest. Who should have a say in local zoning policy? And what should be the relationship between a dominant business and the community? The capitalist answers are clear. On the first question: The business should be able to spend its money as it sees fit, including through exercising its First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly to influence public policy that concerns it. Property ownership should take priority, with each individual free to pursue individual economic gain. On the second question: The business will provide much-prized jobs according to its needs, lucrative leases to those holding mineral rights, and occasional donations to prop up distressed local institutions. In exchange, it will insist on certain beneficial laws. Those who directly (or potentially) benefit from its operations will serve as a local marketing force and voting pool more valuable than what any PR firm could provide alone.

This is where the citizenship model becomes most demanding because it requires individuals to choose one system over another. For citizenship to be meaningful, those who could benefit economically have to choose to sometimes behave as individual citizens rather than individual capitalists. Politicians and voters must see that jobs are only one part of a healthy community. Those with leases need to recognize the shortcomings of new wealth that doesn’t also aid (and may in fact injure) their fellow neighbors. And the community members need to realize that voluntary contributions by a profit-oriented business cannot serve as a dependable foundation for a vibrant future.


Only as we come to differentiate between capitalist and citizenship systems and make decisions accordingly will we be able to rebuild our communities. And we are in dire need of such rebuilding at the local, state, and national level.

4 Responses to Capitalism, Community, and Citizenship
  1. clinton hermann
    July 22, 2011 | 6:09 am

    Thought provoking indeed. Both systems have to find a delicate balance or just make the swings of the pendulum small.

    • Jason
      July 22, 2011 | 2:15 pm

      Exactly. We need both systems. But it seems as though contemporary politics focuses only on capitalism, unbalancing our outcomes and promoting exaggerated swings.

  2. kaahl
    August 3, 2011 | 6:23 am

    I am going to think more on this. But my off-the-cuff answer is that the software that runs our political system has not caught up with the software that runs our economic system. Is it really relevant if your individual community prospers or languishes if you do not have a direct economic interest in it?

    • Jason
      August 3, 2011 | 2:39 pm

      I think you’re right about the mismatch in the political and economic systems. I think a fair deal of this mismatch is in the geographic balance between the authority of local government, state government, and federal government.

      Part of what often frustrates me about conservative calls for states’ rights is that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution to a world of much more complicated scales. Plenty of the policy decisions left to states now are probably better served on a national level, but perhaps not by the legislative or regulatory systems we have currently. On the other hand, there are things we regulate at the federal government that I think would be better left to the states or local governments. Ideally, we need to find better ways for governments at various scales to be mutually reinforcing, mirroring the ways in which local parts of a corporation enjoy the backing of their national or international whole.