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Letter: What Do We Really Want?

King James I understood it in 1621 when he said he’d govern England not by the common will but by the commonweal. This point has eluded us today and not merely because we’ve confused the common will with the commonweal, but because the former, having been usurped by individualism, no longer seems sufficiently definable to sire a public consensus. 

 

We no longer seem to have any idea what we want but we are steadfast nevertheless in wanting it and oftentimes expect someone else to subsidize it or at least suffer to endure the inconveniences therewith. We want lower taxes but are unwilling to cut services, salaries of public employees, or zone for the industries that might broaden the tax base. We want our grandchildren to live here but are opposed to zoning for any diversity of housing stock that might give them affordable dwellings. We want good quality schools but reject, baby-and-bathwater, any endeavor to reform education. We want the benefits of efficient and low-cost unified municipal government but won’t relinquish our local yokel hodgepodge of special districts. We want cell phones but not cell towers. We don’t want homeless families but are against low income rentals. We want to live in suburban domiciles that consume more electricity per person than their counterparts sixty years ago, but are opposed to nuclear power stations, coal-burning plants, a natural gas barge, or offshore windmills. We complain about traffic, parking, congestion, and fuel costs but drive everywhere - even to the store two blocks away. We acknowledge that houses-of-worship, museums, civic organizations and charities significantly improve the quality and meaning of life in the community, but only a very small minority bother to donate their time, money, or effort to support them and they’ll doubtless just sigh and shrug their shoulders when these things pass from the scene. 

 

This generation wants a host of mutually exclusive demands and interprets anything less as the death knell of its American Dream. But perhaps its interpretation is the problem. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, ordinary people who remembered the soup kitchens, bread lines, and sidewalk evictions of the Great Depression and the rationing, blackouts, and “we regret to inform you.....” Western Union telegrams of the War years, moved into suburban homes. To them, the good life was about good schools, close-knit neighborhoods, safe streets, quiet nights, and raising families. Now it’s about cars, boats, flat screen TV’s, Florida timeshares, and garages so overflowing with store-bought items that there’s no room for the family’s three SUV’s. And none of those things will bequeath a sense of common values, sire a consensus, or foster a commonwealth. 

 

Paul Manton