Riots, Rebellions and the Importance of Social Order

Effective government is critical to the stability we need for society to function. These days, that stability is threatened.
by | September 10, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

There have been more than 125 major riots and other civil disturbances in America since 1829. I looked it up because I notice that the older I get the more I'm concerned about order and stability. More and more I recognize the fragility and the importance of public institutions and social order.

"Conservative" and "liberal" have become politically charged words, barely attached to their real meanings, but I think what's happening to me is that I'm becoming a small-"c" conservative. I want policies that strengthen public institutions, preserve the rule of law, recognize the basic dignity of human beings and bind us together as a community. I want policies that take the long view, recognizing a responsibility of stewardship to future generations and thus the need to pass on our institutions--the Postal Service and the national park system, for example--in at least as good a shape as we got them.

A fair test of any public policy is whether it will increase or reduce social stability. Even the most hardheaded economist recognizes that the economy works better in the absence of social unrest. And those who want public policies that make the world a better place for the poor, the vulnerable and the children should know that these are the first victims when things fall apart.

So what sorts of policies produce stability and order? Over the long run, stability comes when government does a good job of efficiently and effectively delivering the outcomes citizens desire and when policy and program choices lead to citizen trust and confidence in their governments' honesty and competence.

State and local government officials can create a safer, saner society both through the policy choices they advocate and implement in their own jurisdictions and by participating in regional and national policy discussions. Elected officials can do this not only through the political system but also through membership organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Career and appointed officials can do it through their roles as government administrators and through their involvement with professional associations such as the National Association of State Budget Officers, the National Association of State Chief Administrators, the International City/County Management Association and the Government Finance Officers Association.

While great oppression sometimes requires riots and revolutions, history shows us that they are not sure channels to a better life. After a long and rocky period, the American Revolution did produce a democracy that has survived (albeit sometimes barely) for more than two centuries and has been an anchor of decency and stability in a dangerous world. The French Revolution, on the other hand, produced the Terror and Napoleon before France finally stabilized as a democratic pillar of Europe.

In our time, the Occupy movement and the Tea Party are signs that instability is growing. Both represent disillusionment close to the breaking point, and they represent a warning: There's a limit to how much discord we can sow and still maintain the legitimacy our government needs to be able to function. The spirit of "Don't Tread on Me" is still strong in the American character.