At the end of our street is a community garden. Many of the local residents have their own box in which they grow tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and so on. It works on a culture of trust and sharing. There is no fence around the garden. It is understood that if someone needs, say, a few carrots from a public box they are free to help themselves.
But recently, it has not been going well. Today I went down to get a lettuce from the box my partner and I had been tending, and its entire contents had gone. Inquiries revealed this had been happening to other people’s boxes. The problem is so widespread many have decided to pull out of the community garden altogether.
Of course, when compared to the great events that befell the world in 2016, this is hardly head-line news. But I also think it exemplifies, in a very simple way, factors that have led to some of the larger troubles of our societies.
As I said, the garden works on trust. Signs explain this, and one particularly hard-working volunteer explains it to others she encounters in the garden. She finds that most people do accept this. But there are also, she says, a small number who, in her words, “don’t care”. They just go on taking whatever they want. I’m sure we have all encountered people who take the view: “In this world, it’s each person for themselves. Only a mug would do something for the good of the community.”
Of course, it’s only a small number who take this view. But so many boxes have been cleared out that a lot of residents have given up and decided to withdraw from the garden.
What all this illustrates is just how fragile a sense of community, co-operation and the common weal can be, and how easily it can be replaced by: “It’s each person for themselves”.
In hundreds of ways each day we trust strangers to treat us decently. A stranger could pick up my unattended shopping-bag and disappear in to crowd before I’d even noticed. But they don’t. Why not? No doubt, part of the reason is they don’t want to be caught by the police. But another reason, surely, is that most feel they live in a community in which the rights and interests of others are to be respected. Our society is not a culture of “everyone out for themselves.” We trust others not to pick flowers from our front yard, not to scratch our car with their keys as they walk by, or not to mug us on a lonely street even if they think they can get away with it.
Unfortunately, it only takes the actions of a handful to threaten this sense of safety and community. But it is worse than that. If the sense of safety and community goes, then perhaps many might start to think: “If I can’t trust others to respect my rights and interests, why should I respect theirs?” And if that happens, we have started to move towards a society in which it is “everyone for themselves”.
In recent years, the issue of growing inequality has become of concern. The main way governments tackle inequality is by taxing the well-off to help the poor. But governments can only tax the well-off if this is something the well-off are prepared to put up with. If they are not prepared to put up with it they will vote for a lower taxing government.
Under what conditions are the better-off members of our society willing to be taxed for the common good? There is good reason to believe that a sense of community is crucial. The Scandinavian countries have higher rates of taxation, generous welfare and less inequality; but there is also in those countries a strong sense of community. By contrast, the US is a country with a relatively less developed sense of community, a more pronounced ethos of “each person for themselves”, lower levels of taxation, and more inequality. A strong sense of community makes it politically easier for governments to take the steps required to combat inequality.
But now: the sting in the tail of my little story. A sense of community facilitates equality, but a sense of community is a fragile thing. It only takes a relatively few pinching vegetables, lifting grocery bags, scratching cars or mugging the vulnerable to endanger that sense of community. But if that sense of community goes, and we become a society in which it is “each person for themselves”, it will become harder for our elected representatives to take the steps necessary to prevent our society becoming even more divided in to haves and have nots. We risk eroding our sense of community at our peril.
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