Archive for category Government

More (Functional) Government, Please

Parks, bridges and streets. Social security, medicare and libraries. Police officers, teachers, the armed forces… the list could go on… it’s comprised of things that have traditionally been provided for by the government. That list is shrinking, and here’s why you should care:

Since 2008, ambulances and fire departments that have been run by private equity firms show longer responses that in some cases resulted in undue death. Just as alarming, for-profit prions have taken cost-cutting measures (decreased mental health services, reduced pay for guards) that have led to more dangerous conditions for both the inhabitants of prisons and those who staff them.

Yet, some welcome the demise of government in favor of privatization. I will concede that state control over the entire economy does not lead to the best outcomes. I will also concede that at times government can seem opaque and outside our influence. However, there are certain services that we all rely upon which, when corrupted by the profit motive, turn to shit. In fact, even conservatives in Kansas are waking up to the fact that by re-branding public schools as “government schools” (a semantic ploy meant to impede supposed governmental overreach), they are now putting their children’s intellectual and vocational development at risk.

All of this came home for me recently when I took two subsequent trips on the interstate, requiring a stop to pee in each instance. The first time, we stopped at the Lake Forest Oasis. This is your typical oasis, replete with McDonald’s, Sbarro’s Pizza, and the toxic odor of Cinnabon buns. The bathroom was crowded, the floor covered in piss, and when I got back into the car I just pretended that the soles of my shoes weren’t, too.

In contrast, on the second trip we stopped at the Wisconsin I-94 Visitor Information Center. A government-run institution. The restrooms were as spotless as they were spacious. A family enjoyed walking their puppy on the verdant lawn outside. A special nozzle allowed me to fill up my water bottle with filtered water for free. Granted, there weren’t any restaurant chains to visit. But in their place, there were pamphlets for local restaurants, tourist attractions, and public parks and forest preserves. I also met a state employee by the name of Ted, who told me about his five grand-kids that he enjoys watching growing up.

Here’s the thing: most services provided for by the government are like that second rest-stop. They are so understated, so matter-of-fact, and so taken-for-granted that you don’t even realize how functional they are until they’re gone and you’re left standing on dry piss waiting for an ambulance that won’t come in time because it’s not fiscally advantageous to save your ass.

Sigh.

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770- 1831) argued that the first step in achieving freedom is what he called “negative freedom,” that is, overthrowing oppressive government. But that’s only the first step. He called the second, more arduous step “positive freedom”: establishing government that actually works for the people by the people. Hegel wrote about this in the wake of the French Revolution, where he saw the revolutionaries take the first step (overthrowing the monarchy) but failing to take the second step (the best Rule of Law they could establish was the guillotine).

A more tangible metaphor might be the prototypical teenager. They rebel against their parents, but give them actual freedom and they don’t know what to do with it.

I feel the same way about conservatives whose only task for the past eight years has been to obstruct good orderly direction, whether it’s not conducting hearings for a Supreme Court Justice nominee, failing to pass a state budget for more than a year, or refusing to fund basic services such as our nation’s infrastructure.

Admittedly, Democrats need to compromise when it’s politically and humanely necessary. But one thing I refuse to compromise is this idea: private interest does a worse job than collective action when it comes to certain issues such as parks, bridges and streets. Social security, medicare and libraries. Police officers, teachers, the armed forces… stuff that shouldn’t be tainted with the scent Sbarro’s, dried piss, and profit.

Whatever this means to you: Vote positive.

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