Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


James W. Skillen


?November 12, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(This week we are resuming our series in which we explore the principles that guide the Center for Public Justice and the ways in which people put principles into practice. For the first few weeks, to provide a quick reference for those who want to know where the Center stands on various issues, we will use edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for The Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

Citizenship amounts to more than merely abiding by the law and also more than merely lobbying for one or two important causes that citizens may hold dear. Citizenship is about exercising a life-long responsibility that requires the ability to make sound judgments about the well-being of one's political community and the world. And since individuals, each on their own, cannot possibly take on all that is involved in such a responsibility, citizenship requires communal, organized efforts of research, education, argument, and action.

"Citizens share with governments the responsibility to uphold a just political community." Sharing this responsibility is of two kinds. Government and citizens are both obligated to uphold the law. Governments make, enforce, and adjudicate the law, but without citizen support and compliance, government cannot succeed in its job. The second kind of sharing, at least in our representative form of government, is the participation of citizens in making, enforcing, and adjudicating the law through elections to public office, communicating with public officials, and using the courts. We must be active as well as compliant citizens.

"Responsible citizenship includes not only abiding by the law, paying taxes, and enjoying the benefits of law-abiding behavior, but also helping to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice." The aim and purpose of citizenship is the same as that of government, namely, to establish and maintain a community of justice for all. If American citizens are merely passive in keeping the law (most of the time) and give no thought to whether the political community of the republic is just, then government will exercise more and more responsibility without being held accountable for its acts of injustice. If, on the other hand, citizens are always agitating for political change and failing to uphold the law, the political community will be undermined by anarchy.

The question then is how to establish and maintain a political community in which citizenship is encouraged and nurtured as an important and vigorous responsibility while at the same time citizens and government work together to make the political community more and more just as a whole. For this to be possible, a firmly established means of electoral representation must exist along with the means of appealing to the courts when injustice occurs. Yet in order for elections and judicial processes to function well, citizenship itself must be recognized and protected as a freely initiated responsibility in an open society.

Many citizens either channel their political passions into one or two issues, or hold back from any participation at all. Not all eligible voters vote, and a very small percentage of citizens are active in political parties. Not every citizen needs to be a full-time political activist, but some citizens need to work full time in order to develop public policy proposals, to study and assess our political system, and to help educate and inspire other citizens to fulfill their civic responsibilities. This is what the Center for Public does: "educate citizens, develop leaders, and shape policy proposals," promoting the organized cooperation of citizens so they can be more effective and persevering in working for the common public good over an extended period of time.??

—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”