Survival of Individuals within a Desperate Community

I agree somewhat with one concept presented in several places on this blog with regard to Kemmis and Rand’s two theories: the community fosters individuals, and individuals build the community. However, in order to survive, the individual must often separate him or herself from the community. The two do complement and nurture one another, but ultimately, survival of the individual has to trump survival of the community.

To reiterate, I know that this idea has been explored on the site. I would like to present a specific example to highlight the battle that the individual must face.

A town a few miles from my hometown is in serious financial trouble, and has been as far back as my memory stretches. Among other things, the town is plagued by a disturbing gap between the very wealthy and the horribly poor, and a nearly bankrupt school system.

At the end of nearly every fiscal year, the district falls into a state of panic because not enough capital remains to form a balanced budget. A bizarre, slightly corrupt trend has been established. The local officials present a disheartening budget to the town, noting all of the services that residents will lose, in addition to a probable increase in taxes. Then, in the eleventh hour, a small group mysteriously comes through with the cash. The money never comes from a community effort, or from individuals who live in the town; the safety net is always provided by a group within either the state or county government.

This past year marked a major but arguably inevitable downfall for the town: after years of distributing questionably uncovered funds, the state and county governments did not have the money the town needed to balance their budget. Local news stations publicized the cuts the city would have to make, most of which were unfortunate consequences for the schools: abolishing the pre-k program entirely, reducing kindergarten to a half-day program, firing hundreds of employees, cutting all extra-curricular activities, and more.

The local officials presented a solution to the town: if the teachers and other school-based employees accepted a five-year pay freeze – meaning solely that their salary could not be altered for five years – the vast majority of the horrifying consequences would not occur, because this policy would raise 16.5 million dollars.

90% of the teachers and other employees in the labor union rejected the pay freeze.

As a result, the government had to seek the money elsewhere. A large portion of their final solution affected the police and fire departments, as more layoffs occurred, and pay cuts were implemented. Even despite those efforts, the budget presented in August was depressing, to say the least.

Because I interned at a local news station this past summer, I was able to sit in on interviews with both local officials and members of the labor union. Despite lengthy exposure to both sides of the story, I have not come to a personal conclusion on which group was more justified in their actions. The union members were offended by the proposed pay freeze, and felt that the mayor and superintendent were asking too much of them. Meanwhile, the local officials were frustrated by the overall lack of cooperation from the union, especially since the freeze was partially aimed at ensuring their job security.

The one conclusion that I did reach was that in this situation, the individual need to survive trumped any sort of desire to help the community. Again, I do not approve or disapprove of that choice, but I do believe that if a similar situation occurred elsewhere, the outcome would be more or less the same. We could argue that the union was a community in itself, but regardless, there was a lack of shared values and consensus in the town about the direction they had to pursue. There were too many individual interests at stake.

What also astounded me was that there was no mobilization by the residents to bridge the financial gap. The surrounding towns are far less destitute, and I thought it likely that many people would donate money if they were instructed on how to do so. For instance, I wondered why something like a fundraiser – a telethon, for example – was never executed. The answer is likely that people did not have the time or money. The individuals were too busy providing for themselves and their families to stand up for their town.

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7 Responses to Survival of Individuals within a Desperate Community

  1. Justin says:

    After reading the situation of this town, all I could think about is that this country, I believe, truly is a classic liberal country. I say that for a number of reasons. Primarily, it seems as if everyone is acting with their own (selfish) interests in mind, and in doing so, they are harming the common good of the town. It seems as if there is no such thing as a cooperative effort to raise a barn anymore, like Kemmis had wrote about. Further, as Morone had written about, the vicious cycle that shifts back and forth between classic liberalism and civic republicanism always seems to wind up back at status quo liberalism. I feel as if in this country, due to the institutional structure of the government, which was, not coincidentally, put into place by another set of classic liberals, the status quo never seems to change. Change is greatly resisted, especially by the dominant ruling class, perhaps because of the uncertainty it would bring about. Plus, there are too many self-interests for people to bind together and operate as a community acting on behalf of the common good.

    I am starting to realize more and more that the United States of America, created classic liberals, is full of self-interested classic liberals who care more about themselves and their rights than the common good, and as such the country as a whole embodies classic liberalism.

  2. Nicole Y says:

    I have to disagree with Justin’s comment. I am not convinced by Hadas’s post that the US is full of selfish classic liberals. It seemed that in the post, Hadas explained that a group had been coming together for the past several years to make sure the school had the funds necessary to carry on. I would say this is a consistently civic republican action; this group (however mysterious they may be) was trying to help to school avoid serious cuts. However, I can also understand how the dependence of the school on this group to balance its budget is a serious problem. In these hard financial times, the money may not be available. Even so, I think it’s also very unfortunate to hear that 90% of the teachers disapproved of a pay freeze. I hope that the school or town can figure out a way to resolve these budget problems for the sake of the children.

  3. Nicole Y says:

    Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Justin’s comment. I am not convinced by Hadas’s post that the US is full of selfish classic liberals. It seemed that in the post, Hadas explained that a group had been coming together for the past several years to make sure the school had the funds necessary to carry on. I would say this is a consistently civic republican action; this group (however mysterious they may be) was trying to help the school avoid serious cuts. However, I can also understand how the dependence of the school on this group to balance its budget is a serious problem. In these hard financial times, the money may not be available. Even so, I think it’s also very unfortunate to hear that 90% of the teachers disapproved of a pay freeze. I hope that the school or town can figure out a way to resolve these budget problems for the sake of the children.

  4. zrickerm says:

    I think that the city residents sound a lot like Classical Liberals. Although there was community action to bail out the failures of city government in the past, it seems like the residents came to the conclusion that the services they would have retained had they given the city the money was not worth the cost of the communal action. Therefore in a sense the townspeople could have been said to have gone through a Civic Republican phase before returning to their Liberal roots. The city government and unions also appear quite inept. It was especially foolish of the unions not to accept a wage freeze. Instead they chose to lay off important civil services such as fire and police as opposed to sharing an across-the-board sacrifice. The union members too sound like Liberals due to their selfish interest to protect their own finances instead of looking out for their fellow co-workers.

    • hadasbrown says:

      I agree with the notion that they are classic liberals in a sense. However, it is necessary to recognize that this was a measure imposed upon the union by the city council. It is a bit perplexing that they would not take the temporary hit for something that would help them in the long run, but there was a lot of tension between the city council and teachers in the first place. The teachers were not the only ones who could have taken on the responsibility of saving the day, and were offended that the burden was placed on them.
      Furthermore, the union is a community in itself. Given the tug of war they had engaged in with the city council, it can be argued that their rejection of the pay freeze was looking out for the greater good of their community. If they gave this much to the city council, how far would the line be drawn in later years?

  5. bronwyn2011 says:

    Although, the individual is extremely important to maintaining a productive society, a well run community as a whole is imperative. If the focus is on the individual than what is best for the community may be ignored. We cannot afford to prop up each citizen, each decision must be made on what is best for the community, and not what is best for single individuals.

  6. nmajie says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post! One of the most interesting parts of your argument is the idea that the union is its own “community.” In this sense, the union embodies civic republicanism ideals because they are looking to help their “own” community; they are not selfish but instead invested in the common good of their union. Does this new variation on the definition, however, make civic republicanism sound selfish? If a union is invested in the common good of their own union, isn’t this an example of classic liberalism? In my opinion, the goals of sub-groups in the community such as labor unions, school districts, etc. are based on civic republican virtues, but their interests and motivations in the community are purely liberal. These individual subgroups in society are representative of the plethora of liberal, individualistic, and independent ideals in society; they are not at all an example of civic republicanism. In your example, I would say that the labor union’s inability to look to the greater common good (that of the entire surrounding population) was a poor mistake on their part. In order for our society to drift away from the ideals of classic liberalism, the common good of all, and not simply the common good of some sort of faction, must be taken into consideration. But, is this even possible?

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