Families and the Republic

Article excerpt

Restorative and responsive justice can be a strategy of social work practice that builds democracy bottom-up by seeing families as building blocks of democracy and fonts of democratic sentiment. At the same time, because families are sites of the worst kinds of tyranny and the worst kinds of neglect, a rule of law is needed that imposes public human rights obligations on families. The republican ideal is that this rule of law that constrains people in families should come from the people. Restorative and responsive justice has a strategy for the justice of the people to bubble up into the justice of the law and for the justice of the law to filter down into the justice of the people. The role of the social worker is to be a bridge across which both those democratic impulses are enabled to flow. The empowering side of the social work role fits the first side of the duality where the will of families bubble up; the coercive side of the social work role fits the second where the justice of the law filters down.

Key words: social work, responsive regulation, restorative justice, democratic theory, families, social justice

Social Work and Structural Justice

My thanks to the contributors to this special issue for a thoughtful and gracious set of contributions. When they arrived from Paul Adams he apologized that there was too heavy an emphasis on families and child welfare, bearing in mind the way Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation (Braithwaite, 2002) ranges across all domains of law, business regulation and even peacemaking in international relations. When I was a young sociologist, social work was not my favorite discipline because it seemed to focus too much on micro-solutions, pejoratively referred to as band-aids, to problems of injustice that require structural solutions. So my energy was directed to studying questions like Global Business Regulation (Braithwaite & Drahos, 2000), the role of the IMF and the WTO, how tax administration can become more effective in getting rich individuals and powerful corporations to pay their fair share of tax to support the welfare state, and the like. Some of our responsive regulatory initiatives in Australia to persuade multinational corporations to pay some tax seem to have been surprisingly effective (Braithwaite, 2003), so it is important not to neglect this part of our work.

We expect social workers to prioritize work with families, but we can be surprised when evidence-driven tax administrators do so. An intriguing development has been that a senior tax official seconded to our research group, Jenny Job, together with her colleague Monika Reinhart, has found that families hold the key to tax compliance! This research (Job & Reinhart, 2003) set out to test Robert Putnam's (2000) influential thesis that social capital and trust in government is driven by civic engagement and associational membership. Their AMOS analysis on survey data from 1,999 Australian taxpayers produced a rich texture of results the complexity of which I will not try to summarize. But the basic result was that civic engagement of various kinds--from not bowling alone, to volunteering, to political activism--had only minor effects on trust in government institutions, including the Australian Tax Office. Trust in family and friends (workplace colleagues really) is what drives their model. If you learn trust in your family, or failing that in your workplace, you trust strangers more, you trust other government institutions more, and these work through to higher trust in the tax authority. Perhaps it is perverse that we sociologists should be surprised to learn that families are much more fundamental than bowling leagues to social capital formation and the cultivation of habits of citizenship that enable the functioning of institutions like taxation that are so fundamental to redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.

As Kristin Kelly (this volume) says, partnerships with community organizations are still important and are here to stay; there are good reasons why these partnerships help secure improved effectiveness and decency in how we pursue important public purposes, from the protection of children to the environment. …

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