The water crisis in Flint demonstrates the necessary and beneficial role of a strong public sector.
For the past 30+ years, self-described “small government” conservatives have waged a propaganda war on the legitimacy of the state. While that war has rarely been as explicit as Grover Norquist’s famous threat to make government “small enough to drown in a bathtub,” the constant focus has been on what government does badly and the constant refrain has been that “we don’t need no stinking’ government telling us to [fill in the blank].”
Let’s stipulate that, yes, there are many things government at all levels does badly, and yes, we need to monitor its operations and correct its mistakes. Yes, there are good forms of government and oppressive forms, and thoughtful citizens should opt for—and attempt to institute— the former. But that is very different from the irresponsible attacks on the very existence of an established political authority.
The shock that has accompanied the water crisis in Flint, Michigan demonstrates the extent to which even the most anti-government among us depend upon a well-functioning bureaucracy, not to mention the extent to which ill-considered ideological decision-making poses a very real threat to the well-being of citizens. (Especially citizens who lack the means to remove themselves from the polity and retreat into privileged enclaves where they can pay for clean water and other “amenities.” Among the ways that governments ameliorate inequality is by providing essential services to all citizens, rich or poor.)
There’s a lot that might be said about Flint’s situation, and a lot of blame to go around, but the lesson to be learned goes well beyond the idiocy of “penny wise, pound foolish” stubbornly ideological policies, or even official misconduct.
America is no longer a country of four million farmers and small merchants scattered along the eastern seacoast. The overwhelming majority of Americans no longer grow and preserve our own food or draw our water from a pristine nearby creek. Cars and factories discharge pollutants into our air, airplanes criss-cross the skies, and we live in densely populated cities where—among other things— we can’t just toss our garbage out the back door. The list is endless.[pullquote] American citizens are utterly dependent on the institutions of government to provide services we cannot effectively or efficiently provide for ourselves. [/pullquote]We expect government to assign air lanes so our planes don’t crash into each other, to inspect the foods we buy at the local grocery so we don’t get ill, to keep the local factory from discharging its toxic waste into our waterways so we don’t drink contaminants.
The private sector cannot protect our gated communities from polluted air.
There are certainly areas of our communal life where government need not and should not intervene. Debate about the necessity and/or propriety of new programs and initiatives is entirely appropriate, as is criticism of poor performance of government agencies or officials.
When self-serving political rhetoric encourages our dimmer citizens to fear a “government invasion” of Texas, when the slightest effort to curtail gun violence sets off hysterical accusations of “confiscation,” when the effort to ensure fair treatment of the nation’s more marginalized groups is rejected by zealots who claim exemption from the laws of the land “because God,” we have not only weakened the bonds of citizenship, we have endangered our own safety and well-being.
If we don’t retreat from the current “government bad/private good” bipolar approach to complicated issues, there will be a lot more people drinking brown, lead-filled water and breathing toxic air.
Among other things.