The Citizens Handbook
Making Citizens Scarce

Charles Dobson

Most government politicians and bureaucrats believe they know best; they should make all the important decisions, and pesky citizens just get in the way. Let me be clear, in most cases, government does know better, should be making most important decisions, and citizens do get in the way. But missing is the opportunity for citizens to work in partnership with government, to achieve what could never be achieved by government working alone. See the article: Serving Customers or Engaging Citizens and many articles in the National Civic Review.

The importance of working with citizens is most obvious in a large-scale emergency, when government is overwhelmed. When an ice storm in 1998 took out most of Québec's electrical grid, Premier Bouchard said the province would have done much better if it had been able to harness the goodwill of citizens.

Even when there is no emergency, the benefits of working with citizens are great, so why is this kind of cooperation so rare? Why have most countries arrived at a “normal” state of affairs that makes citizens scarce? Imagine trying to create this kind of society from scratch — one where people contribute little to the public sphere, and little to the larger decisions that affect their lives. The ideal design might look like this. Note that the first four focus on reducing spare time. Many people (women especially) say they would like to be more involved in their communities, but say they have no spare time.

  1. Make sure most people spend most of their time earning a living.
  2. Eliminate any spare time that might be devoted to the public sphere by offering a huge range of distractions such as sports, movies, games, and addictive "social media".
  3. Encourage excessive consumption. Shopping can suck up time little nothing else. It also absorbs excess production, one of the fundamental problems of capitalism.
  4. Make parents choose between pubic involvement and time with their kids.
  5. Encourage moms to become excessively focused on serving their kids, so they have little time for anything outside the family. See Indentured Moms.
  6. Encourage the view that the public sphere is the place for government, and the private sphere is the place of citizens.
  7. Encourage people to vote every few years, but restrict the opportunities for public involvement between elections.
  8. Make sure anything to do with government is as dull as ditch-water, so that anyone who starts to become interested in government, will quickly keel over from boredom.
  9. Make participation in public processes difficult. Give inadequate notice of public meetings, arrange meetings during the day when most people cannot attend, allow public hearings to go for so long that most people are forced to leave.
  10. Make sure most people have little understanding of how government works. Don't cover government in school. Don’t provide an easy guide to government such as Japan’s What's What. Make sure any flicker of interest from an individual or a citizens group, will quickly sputter out because they don't know where to begin.
  11. Encourage government bureaucrats to treat citizens like children.
  12. Make sure that people cannot organize because they cannot run an effective meeting. Promote structurelessness as progressive and inclusive. Treat Roberts Rules of Order as old-fashioned and hierarchical. Do not encourage an understanding of how to encourage genuine dialogue, or an understanding of how to address difficult issues.
  13. Co-opt "overly involved" citizens by offering paid work, or offering an official (but inconsequential role) on a board or committee set up to address their issue.
  14. Tell citizens demanding action, that changes are in the works, but they need to be patient.
  15. Make access to government contingent on cash contributions to the party in power.
  16. Provide a platform for Not-In-My-Back-Yard opposition to local development. Government experts, and politicians view NIMBYism as evidence that citizens cannot be trusted with public issues because they are motivated by groundless fears, and a selfish interest in preserving their neighbourhood just for themselves. Where opposition is legitimate, public concerns are easily sidestepped. Instead of addressing genuine problems, developers and their allies at city hall will often frame opposition as NIMBYism and dismiss it out of hand. Here is a guide to Confronting NIMBYism. If you have already formed a hardened position based on biased or piecemeal information, you may be one of the reasons that local governments prefer to make citizens scarce.

See also 

Volunteers fix a park
The Control Game
And Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation

The Citizen's Handbook / Home / Table of Contents
The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson /

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.