This morning on KALC 105.9 FM, the morning show personalities were talking about the case of Chandler Grafter, a seven year old boy who died of malnutrition. The refrain was familiar. "Why didn't anyone do something?" Of course, people did notice that this boy was emaciated. His grandmother tried to contact social services, for whom a "gut feeling" and a young boy's generalized fear of a stepfather, wasn't enough to act.
Child abuse and neglect cases are the only time this question gets asked. People ask why no one intervened in longstanding domestic violence situations. More than once in my life I've been in situations where I've heard the screaming fights of neighbors, although none that I know of reached the level of physical violence. People ask it about the loners who go amok and cause mass killings. People ask when a young woman who have never seen a doctor or midwife or nurse ends up giving birth in a bathroom and drowning thier newborn child. They ask it when neighors see a violent crime in action and fail to report it, even though they aren't afraid of the killers. They ask it in mental illness cases, and in cases of elderly people who die in their homes from falls, unable to summon help from a phone a few feet away, but impossibly distant for them.
Sometimes people do act. Sometimes a community's social capital is strong enough to intervene productively. The novel "Plainsong" by Kent Haruf is a beautiful ode to a rural Colorado community where informal community actions works. The Fort Dix attack plot, averted by the intervention of a low level employee at a local Circuit City store, is another. Family members and school teachers and neighbors and bystanders do intervene sometimes, even often.
But, we don't has any systemic grassroots early warning system. Our society doesn't have Mental Health Crisis Block Captains. The political machines like New York's old Tammany Hall where individuals, unbound by bureaucratic rules, found people jobs, and solves community problems, in exchange for loyalty, are dead. We don't have and don't want the neighborhood level Communist party officials of China, whose giant cities work more like huge collections of rural villages (or at least used to until very recently) rather than like modern Western cities of comparable size. We don't have the community policemen found in Japan who make it their business to know their beat so well that an annual visit in your living room from your local constable is the norm, and that same constable keeps a log to keep track of such non-criminal details as what young man is dating what young woman in his neighborhood.
In Denver, police stations are assigned single digit numbers, each having many police officers responsible for tens of thousands of people. Social services is largely complaint driven, with no pro-active intelligence gathering organ actively seeking out those who need help but aren't inclined or able to ask for it themselves.
We are, as one commentator on a blog I was reading recently put it, a nation closer to the libertarian ideal than almost any other in the world. Japan has lower taxes and a smaller government, but that masks a pervasively structured and ordered underlying, highly homogeneous society. Switzerland has greater gun ownership, a more citizen based democracy, a weaker central government, and strong private enterprises, but also far more intrusive government regulation of daily life, more democratic control of private actions from fellow citizens in your local area, a stronger social safety net, and much higher expectations of involvement, military and civil, from its citizens, in public life. Singpore has a seemingly laissez-faire economy, but very little private land ownership (almost everybody rents their homes from the government) and draconian criminal codes enforced by corporal and capital punishment unrivaled outside the Islamic world. Hong Kong might be closer, but it remains to be seen how long its extreme lassiez-fair economy will survive under Chinese sovereignty. The Germans are famous for their Prussian heritage of micromanagement of private affairs. The French have a historical legacy of government driven industrialization and of local affairs managed by cenral government appointed prefects and central government ministries rather than locally selected school boards and municipalities that have historically been weak.
If Richard Florida, author of the book "The Creative Class" is right, and on this point, at least, I think that he is, the very economic and social vitality of our nation is to a great extent a product of our free wheeling unregulated society. Economic development is greatest not where "social capital" is strongest, but where it is tenuous. The networking that drives implemented innovation thrives on numerous shallow ties, not fewer deep ties. If we tried to implement a Japanese model of intense police supervision of our private lives, and strongly government encouraged social norms, our economy would collapse for decades until we learned to engage in the well organized, methodical, wide ranging, slow informal deliberative process that is necessary to bring about change in that society. In our society, we rely on mavericks to fuel Schumpeter's engines of Creative Destruction. In a high social capital society like Japan's, you need wizards of office and local politics instead.
Is there a middle ground? Is it possible to develop an organic grassroots early warning system that catches individual malaise in modern American society, without squelching the not just de jure, but de facto freedom that makes our economy and society an innovative hub for the world? Would a system more alert to childhood and marital problems than the one he grew up in have squelched Albert Einstein's genius? Would we have had the Beatles if the British educational system had had a greater ability to push John Lennon to pursue its recommendation that he take up a mechanical trade? Would we be able to deliver packages cheaper overnight if business plans were judged by the likes of Harvard Business School professors who gave his business plan poor marks, instead of by wildcat venture capitalists who were willing to defy conventional wisdom to give it a try?
I believe that we can find a middle ground that protects our society's libetarian ideal freedoms in vast swaths of our economic and social lives, while intervening to find help for children, the mentally ill, the vulnerable elderly, and subjugated spouses. We can have a society that allows consenting adults to set up and participate in S&M clubs, while protecting battered wives who find themselves unable to report the abuse they are suffering. We can have a system that permits constructive intervention by the state or community in circumstances short of violations of criminal law proven beyond a reasonable doubt, without unduly sacrificing freedom of conscience and individual autonomy.
Parents can have the authority to raise their children, even eccentrically, without necessitating that that authority be entirely unquestioned, or that their parental rights be absolute.
Freedom to make choices that are undeniable stupid and against your own interests, because you are ill informed or deceived, is not something that the public is willing to, or should be willing to, fight to defend.
I don't have a five point plan or chart with boxes and arrows that lays out exactly how the grassroots early warning system I'm intimating in this post would work. This post is a mission statement. It is a recognition of the need on a broader and more all encompassing basis than most single issue activists in these areas are ready to think big enough to push for, while at the same time a recognition of the risk and potential for problems inherent in the ideal if implemented poorly. This system cannot be, as social services tends to be now, a boogey man that cows parents into submission through fear. It should not be punitive in nature, either overtly, or as a back door way to punish where an open admission of an intent to punish would not be permitted. I don't have all those details worked out, but I think, that with the kind of mission statement set forth here, that it is possible to create.