Ask What You Can Do For Your Country: Bringing Civic Responsibility into the 21st Century

The world is full of chronic, human-inflicted problems: poverty, global warming, societal disintegration, obesity and crumbling infrastructure to name but a few.

Many turn to the Government to resolve these issues in the belief that taxes are paid in order for societies’ issues to be solved, and are subsequently frustrated with politicians when they don’t take the necessary action to tackle the problems. While political paralysis is a valid frustration across the Western World (though particularly in the USA), it is not the Government’s duty to solve all of society’s ills. A Government’s mission is to provide and maintain the conditions necessary for civilization to exist: to defend its people, educate its children and enforce law and order. The fact that Government has morphed into its current tangled mess of a beast whose tentacles extend into every nook and cranny of society is due to this ill-founded belief that paying taxes to the Government should be a panacea to all of our problems. The presence of multi-trillion dollar budget deficits only serve to support the notion that the Government has eyes bigger than its stomach, and is unable to make good on a vast amount of its promises.


It is in this context that I would like to discuss the concept of civil duty; the idea that every citizen has a responsibility to go above and beyond merely looking after themselves and their immediate loved ones. It is our job as civilians to participate in society to the best of our ability, using the skills and knowledge we each possess to tackle some of the many problems that affect our communities, locally and globally. “Civic duty” encompasses a wide range of activities; examples include volunteering to tutor under-performing children, starting a neighborhood recycling program, greenifying a concrete urban area or putting together a garden party for your entire apartment building. We live in a big data era in which requires everything to be quantified, and a cost-benefit analysis of performing one’s civic duty may reveal that the impact made tackling the specific problem does not equal the physical or intellectual effort expended; however, it is the positive externalities that arise from going above and beyond other people’s expectations that make fulfilling one’s civic duty so important.

When you make the effort to perform your civic duty, you do more than just tackle the problem you are addressing. For example, by actively pursuing a way to reduce obesity in your neighborhood instead of simply donating to a health organization, you can inspire and enthuse other members of your community to a much greater degree than any outsider would be able to do. Oftentimes the enthusiasms of one person inspires reciprocal participation from other community members who want to help but were unsure how to do so. Most importantly, you yourself can gain an immense amount of personal satisfaction with the knowledge that you are making a tangible positive impact for others.

There is no limit to what can be accomplished if whole communities and societies take it upon themselves to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. Global warming can be abated if millions more people took it upon themselves to recycle, adopt new technologies such as electric vehicles or solar panels, and reduce the massive amounts of waste we generate on a daily basis. The obesity epidemic that threatens to overwhelm hospitals and government health budgets could be reduced with neighbors promoting healthy living, growing their own fruit and vegetables or holding community sports events. Much of the needless poverty caused by unequal opportunities could be eradicated if skilled citizens spent time working with children and parents, teaching them valuable skills and helping connect them with opportunities of which they were previously unaware.


The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke of building a Big Society throughout the duration of his 2010 election campaign. He made a point of addressing the fact that communities working together can make more of an impact than a centralized, bureaucratic government. The idea was ridiculed as political spin that masked the government’s true agenda of cutting funding to vital services and charities, and was officially declared “dead” earlier this year. In my opinion, the message itself holds true, the problem was that it took a top-down approach, seeking to orchestrate a mass-movement from the top office in the country: the only way people will respond to a call for action is as part of a bottom-up, grassroots movement. President John F. Kennedy may be best remembered for a quote from his inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” but the defining movements of the subsequent decade were never orchestrated from on high, but rather by communities of people coming together to tackle an issue they wanted to solve.

Fortunately, today’s Millenial generation is not waiting for a rallying call, and is taking 21st century civic responsibility into its own hands to tackle the self-inflicted problems affecting society. Code for America is utilizing the skills some of the world’s most talented web and software developers to help solve some government inefficiencies by allowing citizens to take charge of maintain fire hydrants or reporting potholes among other innovations. Green Bronx Machine is an organization simultaneously fighting youth unemployment, obesity and inequality by teaching some of the country’s poorest youths to build sophisticated urban gardens (I highly recommend watching the TEDx Talk by its founder, Stephen Ritz). DoSomething and StartSomeGood are both mobilizing youth volunteers across the country to take part in national campaigns addressing issues as varied as texting while driving and teen pregnancy. I’m certain that similar programs are underway in the UK, where the 2010 student tuition fee protests highlighted the activism within our generation.

We may never be able to stop a deadly virus from plaguing society or predict when a devastating earthquake may strike, but it is within our power to solve human-inflicted problems such as global warming. So ask yourself what you want to do to better your community and the world as a whole, not because the government is telling you to do so, but because you want to make a difference.

Until next time!

Ross Garlick


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