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Legacy of Inconsistency: Assumptions Regarding the Solutions to Public Problems

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
July 25, 2020

The protests and memorials over the killings of unarmed citizens by police highlight a lack of accountability in United States public administration at the federal, state and local levels. Government obligations are enshrined in domestic and international laws (U.N. Declaration of Human Rights) to guarantee the rights, even to assembly. Recent protests suggest that struggles for justice for all require a new conception of power and authority. We are at a turning point and the aim here is to suggest the potential for alternative forms of administration involving partnerships, NGOs and individuals infused with humanitarianism and also attuned to grace and virtue—to inspire hope and charity and promote peace.

In Federalist Paper #10, written between the end of the Revolutionary War and the writing of the Constitution, James Madison mentions “virtuous citizens”—factionalism in a democracy, and balancing public and individual needs. The strength in a polity is from equality for all persons; however, the legacy of inconsistencies are still evident. In the “well-constructed” Union, which Madison helped to forge, of course, are sorely tested deep divisions (Civil War) that persist through protests about honoring Confederate leaders, and setbacks in securing equality and public trust. However, virtuous citizens (including public administrators) will work toward a perfect union. Identifying and pursuing the virtuous course in the face of conflicts requires optimism and intellectual love for humanity (or grace).

As systems designated to coordinate productive human action, governments have the capacity to resolve problems and conflicts within communities intra-and internationally. Effectiveness needs well-trained professionals with access to accurate information and comprehensive evidence. However, this is not always the case. In 1995, James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, revealed false narratives of American history downplaying contributions of ethnic minorities; Mark Godsey in, The Myth of Meritocracy and Silencing of Minority Voices finds an analogous problem of disproportionate minority scholar voices in the legal scholarship. Historical trends reported by the U.S. Justice Department indicate disproportionality in criminal justice systems (e.g. Community Relations Service reports about concerns of ethnic minority apprehensions and incarcerations by current policing policies). Trends partly attributable to the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act and continuing to this day; and, effects of sentencing laws and training regulations—hence the recent protests. In the United States, the high proportion of Blacks unserved and unprotected by local law enforcement is disturbing.

There are increasing pressures to call out failures of U.S. public leadership, from the Founding Fathers for their acceptance of slavery to modern education materials with ethnic biases and police forces for discrimination. To be sure, there are bright spots, such as community-oriented activities promoted by Police Athletic Leagues, and civic organizations practicing equitable forms of public administration. These fault lines are legacies of the failure to find the proper public/private balance. Thus, in the 2017 work, After Federalist No. 10, Greg Weiner shares views on Madison’s means to regulate this balance and need of, “Adaptation . . . to changing circumstances.” Weiner draws attention to inconsistencies in Madison’s thinking with regard to a virtuous citizenry, the most striking of which (though mentioned in neither Federalist #10 nor Weiner’s article) was his support for the institution of slavery (proposing the Three-Fifths Compromise) and the tendency to conceive of freedom primarily from the perspective of private property. Such inconsistencies have profound influence on United States politics and developing administrations—insufficiently virtuous public policies leading to spontaneous protests/movements by United States residents voicing discontent, asserting their rights, freedoms to secure justice under the rule of law. Public servants, educators and students of public administration science need a safe place (classroom, other forum) to listen and reflect. These safe places are a staging ground to infuse virtue in actions and promote positive and long-lasting change.

Views of civic virtue trace back to the apostles, philosophers (e.g. Aristotle) and to Enlightenment thinkers (Locke and Kant), shaping the notion of duty. Officers sworn to protect and serve—limit harm to individuals and property and generally promote the public good for these philosophers meant aligning society with the design of a benevolent Creator. Regarding public administrators specifically in the 2013 work, Public Administration: An Action Orientation by Robert Denhardt, Janet Denhardt, and Tara Blanc offers a model for resolving ethical dilemmas; and, the ASPA Code of Ethics describes moral and righteous behavior as central to rational decisionmaking and professionalism. A possible outcome of the encounter between Atlanta police and Rayshard Brooks in June 2020 could have been the officers taking time to reflect on their moral and civic duty and simply driven Brooks home with a warning to avoid public intoxication. The right to be safe from harm is significant as the duty to hold oneself and those public officials accountable to the public good. Virtue plays an essential role in the articulation of individuals’ rights and duties when interacting with law enforcement officers. Public administration as a field of theory and practice can help professionals (pre/mid-service careerists) solving dilemmas through virtue and grace to ensure equality and justice for all. United States residents have to accept their responsibility for structural failures and work cooperatively to reduce conflict. The success of such efforts, however, depends on displaying virtue by all parties involved.

Author: Dr. Kimberley Garth-James, Associate Professor, Fulbright SpecialistDirector, MPA Program and Center for Public Affairs, Azusa Pacific University


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