Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thinning Ranks of the Little Platoons

Edmund Burke:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

Conservatives have long embraced Burke’s concept of these “little platoons” as being the cohesive glue that holds our civic society together. Citizens coming together in voluntary associations at the local level builds true bonds of community and strengthens the societal fabric. This is an alternative vision to the idea that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” Instead, we belong to churches, fraternal clubs, youth sports groups, and service organizations that bring people together and make their communities better places to live. Being committed to these “little platoons” provides citizens a stake in present society and in the future through their work with children.

In order for these little platoons to function, a certain level of commitment from citizens is required. It’s much easier to sit back and say “government is the only thing we all belong to” and let somebody else worry about such matters. To some extent this is what you see in some European countries where participation in voluntary civic activities and charitable giving has decreased as the size and scope of government has increased. As Dennis Prager likes to say, “The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.” The same holds true for civic organizations, which tend to shrink as government expands.

Some of my recent experiences have me worried about whether we’re seeing the same thing in America. While people still seem to want the benefits that they and their children realize from participating in societies little platoons, they don’t seem to want to make the commitment to ensure that the organizations function as they should. They’re “too busy” to volunteer their time, but expect others to pick up the slack for them.

I know that everyone is busy these days. We’re busy too. I work a job that requires a decent amount of travel and includes early morning and late night conference calls. My wife is homeschooling three boys between the ages of four and seven. We have the primary responsibility for looking out for and assisting our aging parents. So our plates are pretty full.

But when necessary we find the time and make the commitment to help keep the little platoons we participate in marching. The following examples are anecdotal and relatively small scale. But the fact that we see these sort of situations over and over tells me they be indicative of a larger problem.

We’ll start at the very small end with the playroom for children at church. It’s set up so that parents can drop off their young kids and sit in the main church for Mass. There is a cry room for families too, but that’s usually a circus and it’s very hard to concentrate on the liturgy in there. The playroom is a nice alternative when your kids are old enough to be on their own, but not old enough for Sunday school. And when Sunday school is not being held, it’s also a good backup.

The playroom relies on having a couple of adult volunteers to work alongside a couple of teenagers (exclusively girls) each Sunday. Given the number of parents who utilize the room, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to line up volunteers to cover this duty. My wife has signed up and usually this involves being in the room maybe two or three times over the course of year. Yet the woman who runs the playroom is always struggling to find enough folks willing to do this and so some weeks the playroom is open and some weeks it’s no. People like to use the playroom for their kids. They just don’t want to make a minimal commitment to help watch other children for an hour.

Next up is soccer. We signed our two oldest boys up to play in a community recreation soccer program this fall. The program relies on volunteer coaches (usually parents) and likes to have two per team. With the season literally just about to kick off, no one had signed up for our team. So even though I hadn’t played soccer since ninth grade and was “busy,” I stepped in to coach. Of the six teams in our league, ours is the only one with only one official coach. I’ve been able to enlist the help of a couple of other dads to help out during our practice/games, but no one else was willing to make a firm commitment to coach. We have fourteen kids on our team and eleven sets of parents (three sets of siblings). Most of them show up every week to watch their kids play and many have volunteered to bring snacks (kids today apparently can’t do any sort of activity without getting snacks upon its conclusion). They want the soccer for their kids, they just don’t want to have to help to make it happen.

Finally there is Cub Scouts. Last year, we had our oldest son join a pack associated with a local public school because they had a Lion Cubs program for kindergarten age kids while the pack at the Catholic school/church did not. We got started a little bit late with the program, but once we were in we were in. The pack was not very well run yet at one point there were eight kids in the Lions Den (no pun intended). By the end of the year, we were down to three as parents dropped out deciding it was not worth their time. One of the parents decided not to show up for the spring campout on the day of the event because it was too cold and rainy for them. Nice life lesson for the kid there.

This year, we switched to the pack affiliated with our church and school. It’s much better organized and they added Lions this year so we have our two oldest sons participating. I believe there are eight kids in the Tigers Den and the pack wanted to get four parents to volunteer as den leaders. So far, there are two people who have signed up for this: me and my wife. Once again, we’re busy too, but we recognize that it we want our son to realize the benefits of being a Cub Scout we have to be willing to get involved too.

There’s a lot of anger and complaining that a fair number of our fellow Americans are getting a lot more out of government than they’re paying in. But there also seems to be a fair amount of free riding when it comes to societies little platoons as well. And just as a smaller and smaller number of taxpayers can’t be expected to keep paying for a larger and larger number of people to receive government benefits forever, so local civic organizations can’t be expected to keep running into perpetuity with smaller numbers of people willing to actively participate in running them.

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