Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rethinking the Role of Government

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

It's usually a fool's errand to open up a debate on why government exists. It's a subject that will stir all sorts of passions - and not all of them well informed. "Why do we have governments and what purposes do they best serve?" is an inconvenient question to ask, but one that begs an answer. How the bulk of the people answer that question reflects the policies our government chooses to adopt. Of course, many would say, "Government exists to maintain stability in society," and many would still expand the answer to, "provide for protection." But, ultimately, both answers are so vague that they aren't very helpful at all. How does government provide for stability? What is it protecting us from? If people thought about those questions more often, perhaps many of our common problems would simply evaporate.

With those questions in mind, if Government's purpose is to prevent anarchy and be a stabilizing force, is our government actually doing it's job? Part of the answer involves considering how the human mind works. We, as a species, tend to make decisions that solely benefit us first, without thinking too heavily on how our decisions impact others - even if we're kindhearted souls that wouldn't hurt a fly. We buy the car that's most comfortable, if we can afford it, not the one that just gets us to where we need to go without leaving a huge carbon footprint. We vote for the candidates who will slash taxes, instead of voting for the candidate with nuanced positions that would ultimately be more beneficial to us as they better our educational system, support affordable, universal health care and grow the economy.

Ultimately, given how the human mind works, shouldn't part of what government does be in making sure our personal decisions - what's best for us at an individual level - also be decisions that benefit society as a whole? For example, all across the country, there's a movement to buy bigger and better houses further and further away from cities, instead of restoring what we have now and using smart growth to build more housing in better locations for everyone - still beautiful, yet efficient, near public transportation and within close distance to plenty of job opportunities and open space.

Since our country has almost no uniformed development strategy, almost all the development across the country is in the form of building Big on the outskirts of cities, stretching further and further out. Can anyone actually blame individuals who choose to get the biggest bang for their buck, only at the cost of a shortish commute (which is often no longer than using public transportation, anyway)? It's no surprise that we see more and more people commuting for ever-longer stretches with their gas-guzzling, but very comfortable SUVs. They're only too happy to own their brand-new 30,000 square foot McMansion with a dozen automatic sprinklers that turn on three times a day, with a yard and a stellar school system to boot.

Meanwhile, they get the added bonus of not having the burden to think of all the other people they've left behind, or how their decisions impact others. Hey, why should they? That huge McMansion is more house than people could buy in the city, after all - and as for all the kiddies stuck in the sucky schools that they no longer have to deal with, it's not their problem anymore. But, when everyone employs that sort of rational thought, there's a very large and very real toll to society - one that this current generation is only beginning to universally feel. We're creating two Americas, running out of oil and energy and polluting the world at an ever-increasing rate, all because we can't take a step back and think things through. All of these houses and cars, etc. are coming at a huge cost - and we haven't even paid the interest on it yet.

Instead of this nearly non-existent development strategy that's about as organized and well thought out as a Chimp with a crayon, our society could be meeting, discussing and figuring out how to make sure individual decisions are the best decisions at the aggregate level, too. We could be making sure our urban and already-built suburban neighborhoods offer top notch schools, great public transportation and conserve as much energy as possible while affording a comfortable lifestyle (we can have our comfort and eat it too). We could be making sure there's ample affordable housing being developed or redeveloped to keep our talented, young families and individuals in their home states, along with amazing opportunities in public higher ed and better resources to connect people with good jobs. We could be making sure we have more and better parks, with plenty of open space for people and children with an active lifestyle everywhere. We could be addressing the systemic problems that are causing budget gaps year after year, creating solutions that would solve those gaps and actually address the systemic problems we all face. We could be doing all those things, but we're not.

In terms of innovation and solving problems, our government is doing a whole lot of nothing - and few people are standing up and doing anything about it. It's as if the government inaction is so confusing that people have been bewildered and caught off guard for decades. It's perhaps the worst case of Deer-Caught-in-a-Headlight yet. Except, here we are - no solutions in hand, terrible leaders in charge and with few people clamoring for change. Maybe, if people were asking the right questions - contemplating how government can best serve us - we'd cease to be ordinary folk and become the active, engaged citizens who can actually solve these messes. It's a tall order for we, the people, who sadly seem to be comprised of more ordinary folk than the type of citizenry who wouldn't let problems slide. The more we have of active citizens, engaged in asking and answering our common questions, the more likely we'll be in addressing our common problems. There's no reason why the Government can't, and shouldn't, be creating incentives for individuals to make the right decisions not only for themselves, but everyone else too. The ultimate question is, do we have the citizen base who can make the demands and be the force for change to make it happen?


Judy Meredith said...

I think of government as the way we work together to do the things we cannot do for ourselves, like educate our children, repair our roads, protect our water and air and public spaces, support and grow the economy etc etc etc. Our taxes pay for a range of public structures to do all of that stuff - and it's our job to keep those public structures repaired and responsive to a changing social and economic enviornment. That's what civic engagement is all about -- constant monitoring and involvement in the public structures that keep our communities healthy.

Ryan Adams said...

I think that's the biggest part of the government's job, but I also think it should help nudge us (not force us) into making decisions that are good for us and good for everyone else. Tax incentives for smart growth and premiums for McMansions seem like a smart idea to me, with anything taxed from McMansions going into renewable energy, affordable housing and other areas that those homes take away from. Etc.

Anonymous said...

It won't happen because the McMansion people run the country on both sides of the aisle. The Kennedy compound, John Edwards huge new house, the Bush compound, every Senator we have. I would like to see a third party develop and if at first it doesn't have much power, it can act as a conscience for the average citizen.

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