The Demands of Responsible Citizenship

Responsible citizenship draws from the same set of values underlying the fundamental principles of good governance.

 

And the most fundamental value is freedom. Freedom demands a culture of independence and autonomy: these translate into the personal ideal of being able to stand on one’s own and to be in a position to shape one’s fate.

 

A personal culture of independence and autonomy leads to further demands, of which three are important.

 

The first is for personal integrity or more simply the ability to keep oneself whole. Wholeness implies consistency between convictions and actions, ideals and deeds, principles and practices. In this light, a free person, and therefore a responsible citizen, always seeks to act in line with convictions and engage in practices properly aligned with principles.

 

The second is for personal discipline or more simply the ability to restrain oneself. Self-restraint recognizes that we are drawn between good and evil, between what is proper and improper, between being selfish and being selfless. In this light, as free persons, and therefore as responsible citizens, we use not self and self interest or personal preferences or whims and caprices as the measure or guide to our actions and decisions. Rather, consideration of others, the promotion of the common welfare, and an external standard for goodness and propriety become our objective and operative measure and guide.

 

The third is for long-term sustainability or more simply the ability to stay the course and persevere up to the end, and in the process becoming stronger, more self- reliant, and more able to help others as well as contribute to the common cause of society. We recognize that we have to be better and more properly equipped, not only to make our staying power longer, but also to make our reaching out and helping others more effective and of wider reach. As responsible citizens, our aim is not merely to have more, although this is important to achieve; it is also to be better, and this is crucial for us to be able to help many others in society.

 

These three: personal integrity, personal discipline, and long-term sustainability only serve to underscore subsidiarity, which is at the very core of a culture of personal independence and autonomy. Subsidiarity gives a special and powerful light to the importance of every person in any social group, in any society. The strength of every individual, indeed the integrity, discipline, and long-term, sustained commitment of every responsible citizen in any society determines its over-all strength.

 

We therefore have to look at every responsible citizen- at the level of integrity, discipline, and long-term, sustained commitment of every free person, living up to a culture of independence and autonomy- as a building block with which society is built. The stronger each building block is- the stronger each one of us is- the stronger our society can become.

 

The second fundamental value, integrally connected with freedom itself, is responsibility. This demands a culture of service that connects rights with duties, privileges with obligations. This culture translates into placing ourselves in the same boat where others are. Thus, we have to give as we receive, think of others and what good we can do for them as we naturally think of ourselves and pursue what is in our interest.

Such a culture of service to others leads to further demands, of which three are important.

 

The first is for openness or more simply the ability to take into consideration the needs and convenience of others. This necessarily broadens our horizons: no longer limited to our concerns and convenience, expanded into the wider world around us, where others become the focus of our attention and interest. As free persons, as responsible citizens, our world is no longer narrowly confined; it is able to take on the many different problems and challenges that can be converted into opportunities to serve others and make a positive difference for their benefit.

 

The second is for networking or more simply the ability to see and forge inter-connections between peoples, events, circumstances, and aspects of life. Through these inter-connections, opportunities for dialogue and communication, for cooperation and even for coordination can be seized so that in teamwork with others we can reach higher goals and get farther, faster, and much more effectively. As free persons and as responsible citizens, we can push the cart in the same direction as others are shoving it towards. In the process we can take advantage of economies arising from scale and harmonization. We thereby build institutions, promote the rule of law, and strengthen systems, making them work more efficiently.

 

The third is for dynamism or more simply the ability to respond positively and creatively to inexorable changes that keep occurring in the wider world around us. These changes demand that we keep on re-inventing ourselves. Thus, as free persons and responsible citizens, there is no end to educating ourselves, equipping ourselves with new skills, acquiring new knowledge, and putting on new mental paradigms. Thus, instead of stubbornly hanging on to the status quo, we constantly look for ways and means by which to conserve the best of what we already have and to introduce improvements so we can get to a higher level of achievement as individuals, as a social group, and as a society. This often implies that we have to be ready, willing and able not only to protect the wider environment- physical and cultural, economic and social, moral and political- but also improve it, and if necessary reform it (at times even radically).

 

These three: openness, networking, and dynamism only serve to underscore solidarity, which is at the very core of the culture of service. Solidarity gives special and powerful light to the imperative for outreach, stemming from a deep conviction that we cannot be islands unto ourselves, separate from others, and cut off from the mainstream and cross currents of inter-action with our fellow citizens. Precisely because we do have rights to pursue our own goals, we necessarily have to inter-act with others in pursuit of those goals, which are as yet beyond us and therefore are external to us. And in that inter-action, as we exercise our rights and impose ourselves, so to speak, on others, we take on duties towards them. As we enjoy the privileges that must be given to us as we pursue our goals, we contract obligations to give unto others accordingly.

 

We do have to count upon every responsible citizen– and upon the level of openness, willingness for networking, and dynamism to respond to change of every free person living up to a culture of service to others in society- as the foundation of any society. The higher the level of responsibility of each citizen, indeed the more open, willing for networking, and dynamic we all are, the higher the progress our society can attain.

 

Subsidiarity and solidarity complement each other. The first focuses on freedom; the second stresses responsibility. Both freedom and responsibility have to come together in dynamic and mutual reinforcement for each other so as to promote the common good and achieve a higher level of progress for all. As citizens we do have take our freedom seriously as we exercise our rights. We also have to be equally conscientious and responsible in the discharge of our duties.

 

Responsible citizenship as an essential complement to good governance translates into the general welfare for all and a higher culture, development and progress in society.

 

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The author has been conferred the Laureate Award by the International Corporate Governance Network. Currently he heads two Institutes committed to governance reforms: the Institute of Corporate Directors which focuses on corporate governance, and the Institute for Solidarity in Asia which deals with national governance. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University.