I had a fascinating conversation with a friend last week. From a large family that prides itself on extended family relationships, he likened family to community. He lamented why some people are dedicated to remain in our fine region, while others look forward to retiring in Florida.
There may be good reasons to retire in Florida. Property taxes are much lower than they are here, and there is no state income tax. The climate is a bit better too, so I hear, at least in winter.
On the other hand, one cannot easily move to a new place and have the same sense of community engagement enjoyed here.
Let’s call our sense of community serendipitous entanglement. Our attachment to this place is equal to this place’s attachment to us. If we feel like we are part of something good, perhaps even something that enjoys a sum greater than its parts, we are drawn in, and we stay.
Certainly, Burlington has that sense. It takes great pride in everything local, and all things local capitalize on that sentiment. Vermonters take great pains to buy Vermont because Vermont, to them, is more than just a place. It is a state of mind and a sense of community. Buying Vermont means supporting one’s extended family, and helping another Vermonter means helping oneself.
In many ways, Vermont is a poorer state than New York. Even more sparsely settled than Clinton County, it must foster a greater sense of self reliance. Vermonters do not expect the state to provide a lot of services. Instead, government there leverages and encourages the private sector that actually does the heavy lifting.
On the other hand, New York has fostered a strong sense that government will take care of many of our needs, at least until it realized quite recently that it could ill afford to do so. But, while New York is having to go cold turkey from our addiction to paternalistic government with deep pockets, it has not yet shrugged of the sense of omnipotent government leaders that our past has created. Nor has it developed a robust sense of self reliance.
But, while we live in a region where government is our biggest employer, we are realizing only our grassroots can offer salvation. Indeed, while government still regulates and dictates, our private sector and our non-profit groups are now rubbing elbows to take fate back into our own hands.
The excitement and energy of an empowered electorate is palpable. There is more excitement now than I have experienced in a decade, and there is a great sense that individual Clinton Countians can make a difference, for the first time in a long time. We even recently chose from a refreshingly broad slate of candidates for public office. Each candidate ran on community empowerment and on working hand-in-hand with the community to get things done by the community, for the community and with the community, lest we forget.
Our success depends on whether we continue to cultivate this energy, or whether we fall back to our unfortunate past in which government knows best. It is this arrogance that has held us back for so long, and has tallied huge bills as government failed to understand that, ultimately, it is citizens, not their representatives, who build community.
This sense of empowerment and of grassroots engagement creates serendipitous entanglement. A resilient community attracts and retains residents. On the other hand, overbearing, paternalistic and hierarchical government causes residents to feel small, to disengage and to lament why our community fails to tease the best from us.
Government can make a difference by doing things, or even funding things, that expand our economic base but which no business or citizen can individually afford to do. It can create a positive and empowering environment and even sow the seeds of success. Government ought to invest, but only if the investment yields a net return. It can’t manufacture success on its own, as visionary as government may be.
Ultimately, government succeeds when it is inclusive and engages the doers so necessary for our success. It is we who must entangle. In the words of Bob Smith, when the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Colin Read chairs the finance and economics faculty at SUNY Plattsburgh and has published a dozen books on local and global finance and economics.