"The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens"

In Part I of Richard N. Haass' book The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, the author expresses that there is “mounting evidence that this rights-based democracy is failing.” [Note: This is not the Richard Haas that painted the five story mural of Black Hawk on the Best Building in downtown Rock Island, Illinois.]

In its Part II, 10 habits for good citizens are presented as a Bill of Obligations, analogous to the first 10 amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights. “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” The 10 obligations are: Be Informed; Get Involved; Stay Open to Compromise; Remain Civil; Reject Violence; Value Norms; Promote the Common Good; Respect Government Services; Support the Teaching of Civics; and Put the Country First.

One must embrace or at least understand the author’s definition and use of the words “obligation,” democracy,” “country,” and “nation,” among others. Haass considers obligations to be different from requirements. “Americans are required to observe the law…” while obligations are what citizens “should do.” His use of “democracy” is meant as a representative democracy (i.e., a republic) in contrast to a direct democracy such as some of the states of Ancient Greece. Similarly, “[a] country is both a political and legal entity. A nation is something different, representing a group of people with a common identity.”

Overall, the author’s support for citizens to take on these obligations appears well-intended. He claims to seek to find a balance between individual rights and the collective good of society; Haass is dismayed that our “country” is comprised of multiple smaller societies rather than one “single large society.”

A summary of several of the proposed obligations is provided here. To “Be Informed” includes exercising critical thinking, possessing a knowledge of history and understanding of how our republic and federalism were founded and should operate. Understanding the difference between facts, misstatements, opinions, predictions, and recommendations is imperative. To “Get Involved” encompasses voting, encouraging others to register and vote, educating each other on issues, working for a party or candidate, and volunteering in administering the voting process. Embracing “Stay Open to Compromise” not only helps reach agreement when parties disagree, it “can create a foundation on top of which additional measures can be added over time.”

“Remaining Civil” advances a better understanding of the issues, enhances learning, may help hone your arguments and lower resistance to them, and may even persuade you to modify or change your viewpoint. “Reject Violence” includes civil disobedience of various forms in pursuit of winning over public opinion on practices that are fundamentally unfair. The obligation “Value Norms” is to value unwritten rules, traditions, customs, codes of conduct, and practices – norms that “cushion” and “lubricate” interactions in society, supporting the “spirit and intentions of the law” that “cannot be legislated”. For example, “by ordering unwarranted tax audits or legal investigations into one’s political opponents,” such as Peter Schiff and Euro Pacific Bank.

Haass quotes John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. He attempts to justify authority and exercise of government powers with this in mind. Unfortunately, the author is not faithful to his thesis of obligations.

Both a former Democrat and Republican, a veteran diplomat, and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations for which he served as president for 20 years, Haass fails to embrace many of the obligations he proposes. He directly dismisses news sources outside of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; local sources are only deemed reliable for local news. Radio and television sources are treated similarly. He rejects the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs, apparently lacking a full understanding of stare decisis, while simultaneously touting support to “Respect Government Services.” Similarly, he insinuates that Congress “makes sure the currency is valued and accepted,” displaying his lack of understanding of history and the Legal Tender Cases.

Haass does acknowledge that “[e]xperts can be wrong at times,” citing the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as an example, which “proved to be a misstatement” rather than “fact,” a.k.a. the truth. He repeatedly references COVID-19, January 6, and the Russia/Ukraine war throughout the book, directly pointing to misinformation as a severe problem. Each issue is an excellent opportunity to practice what he preaches. The River Cities' Reader has certainly covered these topics in depth with fact checks, critical thinking, and an openness to hear from multiple sides, not to mention references to a broad range of sources. Sadly, the author’s viewpoint is very one-sided. While one may opine that he “Remain[s] Civil,” almost none of the examples he offers conveys a sincere effort to apply critical thinking and knowledge of history, nor does he attempt to integrate government, pharmaceutical, and internationally recognized facts published by his trusted news sources that correct earlier reported misinformation. Further evidence of hypocrisy abounds.

In short, Haass’ political viewpoints are not withheld. He argues among other things for society to “grapple with whether to limit inequality, either by forming a government-provided safety net or setting a ceiling on income, inheritance, or wealth through taxation.” He appears to support a “democracy” in which citizens should vote for representatives who will expand upon the limited and enumerated powers granted by the people merely by enacting legislation (not by Constitutional amendment) that the majority deems appropriate in spite of the limitations and disabilities found in the organic documents of our “country,” justified by his proposed “Bill of Obligations” and an apparent belief of a living Constitution. The reader must make a concerted effort to overlook Haass’ political viewpoints and give sincere consideration of the proposed obligations.

Haass calls upon citizens to embrace his Bill of Obligations; implied are inhabitants that are not citizens as the Constitution and laws in pursuit thereof apply to them as well. He fails to emphasize that our public servants (elected or assigned to office or simply employed) should be expected to uphold the 10 obligations; this comes across as a lack of sincerity. More importantly, he fails to address that our servants should also be “required” to honor their oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States (including the Bill of Rights and other Amendments), and the constitutions of their states as part of the Union. The several states individually and the Union thereof comprise our federation; failure to preserve, protect, and defend one or any will ultimately lead to the failure of them all. Our public servants are responsible for the state of our Union, as they perform the day-to-day tasks in governance; citizens of the Union are ultimately accountable as they are the sovereign who have delegated enumerated but limited powers to their government servants. (See “Support the Teaching of Civics.”)

I recommend the book, if you can embrace the obligation to “Remain Civil.” Encourage those who disagree with your viewpoint to “Remain Civil.” Per Haass, they may not change their viewpoint, but they might begin to listen to yours. Hold others accountable to not simply dismiss you, your ideas, or the information that you desire to debate. Respectfully demand that they not resort to “canceling” you, calling you an extremist, racist, sexist, or censoring your speech or history. Challenge them to “Be Informed” and use their knowledge of history and understanding of how our republic and federalism were founded and should operate. Mimic former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – attack ideas, not people – and employ critical thinking; acknowledge and request the same from others. Ask them to join you in upholding the spirit and intentions of the Supreme Law of the Land – both that which cannot be legislated and that which can and should be. I agree with Haass: “It is impossible to preserve a system that is not widely understood or valued.”

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