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Free To Be You and Me in NYC: the Value of Participatory Budgeting

A new mode of civic engagement in New York City, “participatory budgeting,” may help bridge the gap between our country’s foundational principles and our tendency to let ourselves be shepherded by elected leaders. Rousseau would be proud.  

I got a taste of a promising new mode of self-government last month in Brooklyn, when my wife and I  and thousands of other ordinary civilians  helped decide how a bit of the New York City budget should be spent. It was a pilot program in “participatory budgeting,” a concept that began in Brazil in 1989 and is now used in hundreds of localities around the world. The New York Times declared it “revolutionary civics in action.” 

I’ll share a few thoughts about New York’s interesting experiment in a moment. First, let me place participatory budgeting in a conceptual context.

The theory of popular sovereignty animating the Preamble’s “We the people” and President Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people”  the idea that the people are in charge here  underwrites the American ethos. Here is how James Madison put it in Federalist no. 22:

The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.

In what sense are the people sovereign in the American democratic system? Even the least cynical among us must admit that the theory is prettier than the reality. Voter turnout is steadily declining in national, state and local elections, and recent efforts like the ridiculously anti-democratic new elections law in Florida are only making matters worse.

With the exception of jury service  the only civic duty we are required to perform  exercising popular sovereignty is a distinctly optional activity, and most of us opt out. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this is not really democracy at all, and it certainly is not a picture of the people in charge.

Rousseau’s prescription for political legitimacy is based on every single adult citizen taking an active role in the law-making function of government. To be free, for Rousseau, is to give voice to your inner legislator in concert with your fellow citizens and then to abide by the laws you prescribe. Anything less is “slavery,” and you’re fooling yourself if you think elections represent true political freedom:

The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them. (Social Contract, Book 3, ch. 15)

Harsh, yes. Probably too harsh. And unrealistic. There is no way to bring a Rousseauian social contract to a country of 300 million people ranging over 3.8 million square miles, as Rousseau himself would admit. We might be able to choose the next American Idol collectively, but direct democracy  government by discussion with 100 percent participation  is just not in the cards.

Nevertheless, New York City’s experiment in participatory budgeting appears to be a small, local, creative way to bring a little Rousseau into the American system.

The city’s first application of the idea spanned six months, involved four city districts, and proceeded in three steps. This past October, neighborhood assemblies were held for anyone who had an idea for a capital project. In our district, volunteer delegates then transformed the ideas into 20 formal proposals with projected costs, paving the way for individuals to gather in schools and community buildings during a weekend in March to vote for their favored projects.

Our two young daughters were disappointed that they were not allowed to vote  it was an 18+ show  but they read about the projects and lobbied us relentlessly during the voting, as did a guy who was particularly keen on a proposal to add soundproofing to the cafeteria in his daughter’s school. (State election laws banning politicking at the polls did not apply; maybe they should.)

The winners were announced last week. In our district, represented by Council Member Brad Lander, who was the impetus behind what he calls “a new form of hyper-local democracy,” the top vote-getter was a $150,000 project to bring a modicum of humanity to girls’ bathrooms in an elementary school where stalls were too tiny to accommodate doors. Also funded were projects to repair paths in Prospect Park, start a community composting system and plant 100 new trees in a particularly gray stretch of Brooklyn’s urban jungle.

While the budgeting impact of this first round was tiny, to put it generously  the $6 million accounts for less than .01% of the total city budget of $70 billion ­ the symbolic impact is significant, and the process has brought more minority and low-income people into the democratic process. It has also expanded the political imagination of young people.

Soni Sangha of the New York Times quoted Marcus Monfiston, a 16-year-old who spearheaded and lobbied for a successful $450,000 plan to add lights to two parks and a field in his Brooklyn neighborhood where his classmates had been attacked:

“I was like, I can really make a change…We’re not just here to go to school. We can be more, do more.”

The “death of the body politic” comes, Rousseau tells us, when citizens like Mr. Monfiston are in short supply. Societies dissolve when people no longer “fly to the assemblies” but sit passively in their homes while others manage the state. “As soon as any man says of the affairs of state ‘What does it matter to me?’,” Rousseau writes, “the State may be given up for lost.” This corrosive sentiment is reminiscent of the wicked son’s question in the Passover haggadah: by asking “what is this seder to you?” he excludes himself from the community and declares he will take no part in it.

Participatory budgeting is not a cure for all that ails American democracy. But it represents a small, encouraging corrective to the increasing gap between our country’s foundational principles and our tendency to let ourselves be shepherded by elected leaders. Here’s hoping the idea takes root in New York and beyond.

Join Steven Mazie’s flock on Twitter:@stevenmazie


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