Many have by now heard or read the story of the plucky group of Hawaiians on the island of Kauai who, when faced with the loss of their businesses due to the state government’s inability to open park roads to a popular beach and camping area, took care of it themselves for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time. How very Tocquevellian. Or, better, how very American. The story brings a reflexive smile to everyone who hears it, but the events cast a spotlight on the way governments at all levels interact with their communities, and how, in light of significant budget cutbacks, roles are changing.
In his magisterial commentary on 19th century democratic culture, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville compared the initial sources of public action in European countries with the United States: “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”
De Tocqueville was overwhelmed at this penchant of Americans to collaborate in common effort. The Frenchman attributed this unique, awe-inspiring American quality to the absence of a large government or aristocratic structure. “They can do almost nothing by themselves," he wrote, "and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”
After December floods washed out the park roads, bridges, and facilities at the Polihale State Park, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) studied the damage and released a statement two months later, declaring, “We know that people are anxious to get to the beach. However, the preliminary cost estimate of repairs is $4 million.” An original timeline for the work was set for late summer, but, commented local resident and surfer, Bruce Pleas, "It would not have been open this summer, and it probably wouldn't be open next summer.”
The DLNR’s natural response to this natural disaster was to go inward (look to its own capabilities) and upward (look for more State or Federal funds). The public’s role – if there was to be any – was to leave them alone to do the first task, and help them achieve the second; specifically, the main objective was to grab a fee-generated windfall for the department, ironically entitled the “Recreational Renaissance” fund. In February, DLNR’s Chair, Laura Thielen, pleaded, “We are asking for the public’s patience and cooperation to help protect the park’s resources during this closure, and for their support of the ‘Recreational Renaissance’ so we can better serve them and better care for these important places.” The department convened an “information meeting” in March to discuss… how residents could work with the department to open the roads? No, only to provide information on how to lobby the state for more funding.
This approach did not sit well with area residents who depend on the park for their livelihood. It was reported that Ivan Slack, owner of Na Pali Kayaks, which operates from the beach in Polihale, summed up the community’s frustration: "We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part." Beginning in late March, business leaders and local residents organized — “associated” — to take the situation into their own hands. From food donated by local restaurants to heavy machinery offered by local construction companies, a project that was originally forecast to cost millions and take months (if not years) was nearly completed in a matter of weeks, all with donated funds, manpower, and equipment. As Troy Martin from Martin Steel, which provided machinery and five tons of steel at no charge, put it, “We shouldn't have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic; something that took us eight days would have taken them years. So we got together -- the community -- and we got it done."
This was not just a park clean-up, but a significant undertaking involving bridge-building, reconstructing rest rooms, and use of heavy equipment to clear miles of flood-damaged roadways.
While unique in its scope, what is happening on the southwestern coast of Kauai is not completely anomalous. Due to the national budget crisis, states and cities around the country are having to take a hard look at the services they offer and find new ways to involve civil society. The organization I head up, California Common Sense, is working with cities and school districts that have to chart this new course. The failure of several revenue-raising ballot initiatives here in the Golden State has provided even more impetus to practice this outward-focused governance.
In some respects, governments themselves are to blame for setting the service expectations of the past decades. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the “TQM” (Total Quality Management) craze in private industry found its way into the public sector, and a new language of “service provider” (government) and “customer” (citizen) followed. Government no longer was something to participate in, but something to pay for. Later in this transition, scholars like Northwestern University’s John McKnight could see that the results of this new relationship were heading towards a precipice. In an essay for The Essential Civil Society Reader, McKnight commented on this situation in terms reminiscent of de Tocqueville’s fears almost two centuries earlier: “The service ideology [in governments] will be consummated when citizens believe that they cannot know whether they have a need, cannot know what that remedy is, [and] cannot understand the process that purports to meet the need.” This, thankfully, is not the situation in Kauai.
But we, as citizens, don't get off the hook that easily. Certainly, we have too often taken on this role as “customer,” believing our taxes are just the prices we pay for the services we desire, from filling potholes to teaching our children. When government does not perform up to our expectations the usual response is either to decry its wastefulness or to acquiesce to higher taxes. These often unproductive reactions come from both the left and right on the ideological spectrum.
The story in Kauai, and others bubbling up around the country, demonstrate that there is a “third way”: get some friends and pick up a shovel when the government can’t or won’t. Governments on the other side of this equation need to be open to this kind of direct participation; in fact, they should encourage it. What is happening in Polihale is not a syrupy, Rockwellian portrait. It is doubtful that this dramatic participation would have occurred without the dire financial consequences that loomed for many of the residents and businesses involved. It is a manifestation of de Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood”.
“All feel themselves to be subject to the same weakness and the same dangers,” De Tocqueville wrote, “and their interest as well as their sympathy makes it a law for them to lend each other mutual assistance when in need.” Ray Ishihara, manager of the local Ishihara Market, which has donated food for the volunteers, puts this in more concrete terms: “I think it’s great. Everybody needs help these days in this economy.”
It is ironic that this should all be taking place in President Obama’s home state. The usually articulate Obama has sounded uncomfortable when attempting to define how he expects Americans to “sacrifice” during this financial crisis. From a policy perspective, the Administration’s only responses appear to be raising taxes on our wealthiest 5%, and, interestingly, increasing Federal funding for volunteer programs.
One thing the President could do is travel out Kauai’s Route 50 to Polihale State Park during his next trip to Hawaii. There, he could see and celebrate what everyday Americans do when they gather in common purpose. Thanks to their hard work and sacrifice, surf’s up.
Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan organization that supports citizen participation in policymaking (his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC). He also lectures on State & Local Governance at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. An earlier version of this article appeared in City Journal.