The Bill of Obligations:
The Ten Habits of Good Citizens
By Richard Haass
Penguin Random House
$18 paperback; $13.99 eBook
Reviewed by Gila Hayes
Will the many rights Americans cherish vanish in coming years as warring political factions put their wishes above what’s best for the country? Claims to individual rights range from self defense or free speech to the idea that people have a right to be given a minimum income. How did people come to focus on rights to the exclusion of performing duties to the system assuring the rights? Some of the answers are in The Bill of Obligations by Richard Haass, which a long-time member recommended.
Long a critic of trying to guide other nations when our own is deeply divided, Haass writes that Americans “focus almost exclusively on perceived rights and [the country] is breaking down as a result.” He suggests a series of obligations he wishes Americans would adopt. He writes, “A democracy that concerns itself only with protecting and advancing individual rights will find itself in jeopardy, as rights will come into conflict with one another.” Instead, he asks readers to stop demanding “rights” and shoulder the obligations falling to every citizen.
Haass acknowledges that democracies suffer from disinterested citizens, failure to understand complex issues and the danger of super-majority oppression of the smaller voting blocs. Our founding fathers feared the new government becoming tyrannical, leading, he believes, to the Bill of Rights, which contains much balancing language. For example, the First Amendment’s protection against imposition of a state religion concurrently assures free exercise of one’s chosen religion (or none, if the citizen prefers). But what is required to be sure the rights endure? In his view, citizens have to invest in the nation or rights will be lost. Max Arzt said, “It is not enough to talk about human rights without emphasizing human duties,” Haass quotes, adding that Arzt believed that rights without duties leads to lawlessness; duties without rights leads to slavery.
Haass prefers the idea of obligations and writes, “Obligations are different from requirements. Americans are required to observe the law, pay taxes, serve on juries, and respond to a military draft if there is one. There is no wiggle room. Failure to meet requirements can result in a penalty, be it a fine, imprisonment, or both. Obligations are different, involving not what citizens must do but what they should do.” He champions ten obligations.
Obligation 1. Be informed.
Learn to recognize “facts, misstatements, opinions, predictions, and recommendations. Facts are assertions that can be demonstrated to be so, measured, and proved.” Misstatements cannot be proven and there is no such thing as “alternative facts,” despite popular usage of the term, he states. Still, reliable facts are essential. Debate about issues is only effective when “based on a common set of facts,” he writes, recommending a reading list that includes the classics, biographies, famous speeches and for current events, he advises, do not fail to compare information from several sources and avoid emotional or sensational “news” websites.
Obligation 2. Get Involved.
“In a representative democracy, elected and appointed officials wield a great deal of power, but the point is that this power is derived from those who elect them and give them the power to act,” Haass writes. Voting encourages study into issues and makes the citizen a stakeholder in the process of government.
Obligation 3. Stay Open to Compromise
Compromise is not a dirty word. In fact, it was “at the heart of the process that led to the Constitution” and the Bill of Rights, and can bring rabidly opposed parties to accept an alternative. Haass observes that the Cuban missile crisis was resolved by a compromise through which Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuba, but only when Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and, Haass writes, promised to take medium range missiles, capable of reaching the Soviet Union, out of Turkey.
“A basic rule of thumb is to hold fast on matters of fundamental principle,” he writes. Compromise uses the pros and cons of the agreement, and that’s often preferable to an ideal that is utterly impossible to reach.
Obligation 4. Remain Civil
“Learn how to disagree without being disagreeable,” Haass writes. “Deal with issues and arguments on their merits,” not what you suspect motivates them. Don’t make disagreements personal; don’t attack the other’s intelligence or character. Ask how they came to adopt the opposing belief. The goal is not to “demolish the other side” or humiliate the other. Be willing to change opinions if new evidence surfaces that alters the facts.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people.” Haass holds up Scalia’s personal friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “a model we would all do well to emulate.”
Obligation 5. Reject Violence
Interestingly, Haass starts this chapter by recognizing the legitimate use of force in self defense. However, violence has no place in pursuit of political goals, he continues. “Gaining power through violence robs those involved of any legitimacy.” He suggests readers look to “Henry David Thoreau, a mid-nineteenth century New England thinker who refused to pay taxes as a protest against slavery and the war with Mexico. Thoreau was prepared to go to prison for his stance and did.”
Obligation 6. Value Norms
Haass defines norms as “the unwritten traditions, rules, customs, conventions, codes of conduct, and practices that reduce friction and brittleness in a society.” A system of laws alone is not enough. He explains, “no society of any sort, much less a democratic one, can endure amid widespread lawlessness. Order is a necessary prerequisite for everything we value, from the personal to the professional and from the mundane to the profound.”
Obligation 7. Promote the Common Good
Spoiler alert: Haass legitimizes wealth redistribution as part of his equality ideal. While that doesn’t take the good away from other ideals, the “how” on Obligation 7 is unlikely to resonate with conservatives. Haass quotes Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail which makes, in King’s own words, “a strong case that the obligation to care for others, be it for their sake or our own, is critical for a democratic society.” It pains me to point out that Haass also parrots opinions about the safety and effectiveness of masks and vaccinations during the pandemic, diminishing, for me, the value of the rest of the book.
Obligation 8. Respect Government Service
“What began as opposition to strong government and big government has morphed into outright hostility of government and rejection of its legitimacy and authority,” Haass writes. He believes democracy’s tools of a free press, Congressional hearings, whistle blowers, the criminal justice system, and the remedy of impeachment all remain viable. “History demonstrates the capacity for uncovering mistakes, introducing reform, and voting out of power those who have failed to use it well or honestly.” Several years of community service by young Americans would break many out of the prejudiced, narrow views children learn from family, especially as society has become more segmented, he recommends. Grants or loans for higher education or forgiving individual student debt, could incentivize obligatory community service, he suggests.
Obligation 9. Support the Teaching of Civics
“We are failing to fulfill the obligation to pass down the essentials of what it means to be an American and citizen of the United States of America,” Haass observes. He highlights the Jewish Passover tradition during which parents teach their children specific details of their history, inspiring Haass to call for the return of civics to school curriculums so students learn about the three federal branches of government, and state and local government, how each operates, and the ideas fundamental to understanding American democracy: “representative versus direct democracy, republics, checks and balances, federalism, parties, impeachment, filibusters, gerrymandering, and so on.”
Obligation 10. Put Country First
Can the genie of self-involvement be stuffed back in the bottle? Haass writes that his first nine obligations will only be adopted if citizens “put the country and American democracy before party and person.” It must be voluntary, not motivated because it benefits you.
“Virtue or character cannot be mandated or legislated. It can be encouraged on the basis that it is right and moral and ethical. But it can also be encouraged on practical cost-benefit, or instrumental, grounds, in that over time individuals and groups will be better off if they go about their lives keeping in mind broader and longer-term considerations.”
Additionally, political parties would have to stop retaliatory politicking in favor of national interests, and when one’s political party is not in power, hold the majority to account and constructively offer policy alternatives that assure the country’s future.
It falls to voters to enforce responsibility in their representatives. “Political leaders disinclined to put country and American democracy before party or self will be persuaded to change their ways and do what is in the best interest of American democracy only if voters and funders reward those who act in a manner consistent with democracy and penalize those who do not. Politicians may not always be responsible, but they are almost always responsive.”
I am conflicted about the time I spent reading The Bill of Obligations and in all candor, I cannot recommend it. Nonetheless, in its first quarter Haass recommended “the utility of spending some time watching news shows or reading columnists or visiting websites with which you tend to disagree.” I guess I did that beyond all expectations. He hit most of my personal hot buttons and opinions. As a result, often it was hard to buy into the value of replacing the popular idea of “rights” with shouldering our obligations as citizens. It is too bad that the value of the 10 Obligations is, in my opinion, eclipsed by forwarding what he’s been told about issues like the reliability of mainstream news media, his beliefs about COVID-19, election fraud, or climate change. Having admitted all that, I firmly believe adopting the 10 Obligations is essential.