About 15 years ago Robert Putnam wrote an interesting book called “Bowling Alone.” The book used data on participation in bowling teams, parent-teacher organizations (PTA), church attendance and other social activities to argue that the US was experiencing a breakdown in the bonds that held communities together. Today, a man was cited by the police for repainting his town’s crosswalks after the town repeatedly delayed fixing them. Should people be arrested for engaging in community improving activities?
Putnam’s book on bowling alone gathered widespread attention when it was published. Numerous academics attacked or praised the research (four examples are 1, 2, 3, 4). Civic participation and volunteering is important for creating livable communities.
Unfortunately, tracking data on bowling leagues and voting patterns does not clearly show if people are being less engaged or are simply shifting their engagement to other forms of involvement. For example, bowling leagues might be losing members, but softball or a new sport like Ultimate Frisbee could simply be taking their place. People might be less inclined to vote, but this may simply reflect the fact that the US population has increased rapidly over the past few decades and today at over 321 million, an individual’s vote has much less impact than when the country was half or two-thirds its size.
Even with these caveats I think Putnam’s idea of a decline in civic engagement is worth taking seriously. One reason why individuals might have less civic engagement is exemplified by the man being charged with defacing public property for painting the town’s crosswalks. Good deeds potentially will be punished.
The man who painted the crosswalks did it in the town of Billerica, Massachusetts. Interestingly, the man charged by the police was a town selectman. A constituent asked him when the crosswalks would be repainted. He checked with the town and was told they would be painted in May. By the middle of July the crosswalks were still not painted so the selectman took a can of green paint and colored in the area between the white lines himself. The town manager was furious. Today the painter was “charged by police with defacing public property.”
The town manager stated that the selectman violated the town’s by-laws. However, my reading of the town rules shows only that the town is guilty, since section 9-B-5 of the by-laws states that all signs (which includes traffic signs) must “be maintained in good condition. If a sign shows corrosion or deteriorated paint over 25% of the area” it has to be fixed.
Looking at Federal regulations published by the Federal Highway Administration shows no requirements for the color or type of paint that can or cannot be used between the white crosswalk lines. This means even if the painter had carefully read both the Federal and local regulations before taking matters into his own hands he would not have suspected that he was doing anything illegal.
A widely quoted saying is that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I believe one reason for the decline in civic involvement is the proliferation of laws and regulations. It is often clear to people when they are doing an illegal or immoral act. However, with so many laws, doing a good deed is potentially illegal. This results in many people not engaging in civic activities for fear of being punished. Many laws are put on the books with the intention of improving society. However, a profusion of laws and regulations can have the unintended consequence of weakening the very bonds that hold society together.