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China retrenches. Poland reconstructs. The Soviet Union reforms. Why do these developments so galvanize our attention?

To answer in the usual way - that we love seeing communist governments shift toward democracy - misses the point. We're not normally transfixed by something as dull as changes in governance. These days, we're being grabbed in more profound and personal ways. Why?The answer has to do with some centuries-old questions. What's the good life? What kind of governance best helps you attain it? And what's the proper balance between individual initiative and collective authority?

That last question is what's now being played out in Poland, China and the Soviet Union. And that's what resonates so loudly in the West - largely because we haven't resolved it ourselves.

On one hand, we're sure that unbridled individualism doesn't work. Call it robber-baron capitalism, yuppie greed, an imperial presidency - by whatever name, it doesn't sustain the good life.

On the other hand, oppressive collectivism is manifestly unworkable: That's what bureaucracies everywhere, from Samuel Pierce's Housing and Urban Development Department to the Soviet collective farm system, are regularly proving.

So the central question still rings through: How much should government do for me, and how much should I do for myself and others?

It's in this context that an article titled, "What Voluntary Activity Can and Cannot Do for America," in the latest issue of Public Administration Review, makes such good sense.

Written by Brian O'Connell, president of Independent Sector - a coalition of corporate, foundation and voluntary groups that studies America's nonprofit organizations - it begins by picking up President Bush's image of the "thousand points of light." That image stands, in part, for private effort dedicated to public service. It encourages voluntary activity. And that's obviously good, O'Connell argues.

What worries him is the tendency to use this voluntary impulse as an excuse for government budget-cutting - down-loading onto the non-profit sector the legitimate activities of government.

"Voluntary endeavor," he writes, "does not take the place of government in serving as the basic agent of civic interdependence."

Why not? Partly because of size. Granted, the nation's 2 million-plus non-profit organizations spend $250 billion a year on good works. But even that sum hardly compares with the $2.5 trillion spent annually by government.

More important, the non-profit sector isn't a carbon copy of government. At its best, it's provocative, entrepreneurial, daring - an agent of change often far in advance of government.

So what's the relation of government to private initiative? In this century, O'Connell argues, American thought has moved from "a focus on the responsibility and capacity of government" after the Great Depression to a growing recognition of the limitations of government.

Since the 1960s, there has been an "explosion in number and impact of voluntary organizations" - and a corresponding denigration of the shortcomings of government. But both sides are essential. What's tricky is getting the right balance.

Late 20th-century America, then, is feeling some real rumbling along the fault lines, where the collective meets the individual.

If that sounds strangely akin to the situations in Poland, China and the Soviet Union - where informal groups and non-governmental organizations are challenging their governments - that's not surprising. Looking at those nations, we're seeing ourselves.

No wonder we're interested.