Reading Ricochet member Indaba's charming post, "What Does it Mean to be an American?" yesterday, I found myself nodding in agreement with her claim (paraphrasing Ayaan Hirsi Ali) that a foundational part of our makeup is the tendency towards "the people getting on with their lives without looking to the state."
This, it seems to me, is indeed fundamental to our character. It's not so much that Americans hate government, as that they love their fellow man more. And when they feel the need to act on his behalf, they can generally find ways to do so that are smarter, faster, more effective, and less expensive than petitioning an appropriations committee or lobbying for new regulations. It's not necessarily a matter of principle (though, for many of us, it's that too); it's just what a lot of Americans consider common sense and basic human decency.
If you want to read about this phenomenon in action, I'd commend to you the new issue of Reason magazine (it's the August/September issue --I've never really understood how that works). In it, 2012 Phillips Foundation fellow Tate Watkins has a terrific look at the city of Joplin, Missouri -- a town that reacted to a tornado that virtually obliterated it just over a year ago by conducting the rebuilding process in a fashion 180 degrees from post-Katrina New Orleans (I'd link, but the piece isn't available online yet):
... After the tornado, emergency response teams from around the state steamed into town. Four hundred and thirty police, fire, and public works departments helped with search and rescue, cleanup, and debris removal. Doctors and nurses, many of whom worked at one of Joplin's two hospitals or in the medical services sector clustered around them, came from around the four-state area. A handful of warehouses around the city are full to this day with donated material such as tarps, clothing, and food.
Most displaced people found refuge with nearby family or friends; the city estimates that 95 percent of people displaced by the storm stayed within 25 miles of town. "A lot of the residents are staying here," Assistant City Manager Sam Anselm tells me. It's "a testament to the spirit, the way the community responded to this."
The city registered 130,000 volunteers from around the country and estimates that at least that many helped and weren't counted. One even came from Japan and stayed two weeks, citing the way Americans donated to his country after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. (Someone found the Japanese volunteer a bicycle that he rode 12 miles each day to and from his cleanup site). In October, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition rolled into town and built seven homes in seven days. Habitat for Humanity built 10 the next month.
Many of us will probably have a melancholy tinge to our Fourth of July celebrations tomorrow, concerned as we are after last week's Supreme Court decision that the nation is drifting even further from the moorings of 1776. But stories like this are a happy reminder that, while the constitutional order may be under fire, the American spirit remains unbroken.
Happy Fourth of July to the entire Ricochet community -- and also to the good people of Joplin, Missouri.