A few years ago, I was asked to testify before some state and local government officials. The question was whether to protect
workers from secondhand smoke in their places of employment.
Inevitably, someone opposed to the legislation would protest that this was not government’s responsibility.
“The private sector should decide,” someone would say.
Or a bar owner would say, “Don’t tell me what to do in my own business.”
Or a libertarian would say, “Government should butt out; we don’t need a nanny state.”
Or a smoker would say, “Tobacco is a legal product. You can’t take away my right to use a legal product.”
Inevitably, I would reply that good government does not let private businesses decide whether to endanger lives and safety, even with legal products.
Good government does not let private businesses decide whether to drive legal-but-hazardous waste down Main Street and dump it in our reservoirs.
Good government does not let private businesses decide whether their legal company cars may drive at 120 miles per hour on 82nd Street.
Good government does not let bar or restaurant patrons spray insecticide on one another.
Then the opponents would say, “But we need less government, not more.” And the argument would go ’round and ’round.
With the passage of the economic stimulus package, the bank bailout bill, health reform legislation, the consideration of finance reform legislation and the escalation of the national debt, the outcry against all things government has gotten louder and louder.
“Stay out of our lives,” say outraged individuals.
“Read our lips; no new taxes!” cry the masses.
“Turn back the clock; rescind the intrusions on our freedom,” say some political candidates.
“Smaller government, more personal and private-sector responsibility,” say others.
Until, of course, something perilous or personal happens—like an oil slick.
Ever since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the anti-big-government crowd has demanded big things of government.
“Government should have reacted sooner,” some said, as if they were willing to publicly fund coast-to-coast underwater intelligence teams within the CIA or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to foresee any crisis and stem the tide.
“Government should take over from BP,” some said, as if they were willing to publicly fund government-owned, rig-repairing submarines, engineers and support teams on perpetual standby from sea to shining sea.
“Government should do more to keep the oil away from fish, pelicans and marshes,” some said, as if they were willing to publicly fund thousands of miles of magic barriers and tens of thousands of skimmers to miraculously suck the slick from the sea.
“Government should kick BP’s butt,” some said, as if more hearings, tirades, investigations and pressure would make the drills dig faster, the caps fit tighter, and the repair crews feel more motivated.
Through the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we’ve seen those opposed to government regulation of private industry calling for more regulation of private industry.
We’ve seen those supporting limited damage payments by oil companies calling for removal of those limits.
We’ve seen those who debase the social safety net with cries of, “Fend for yourselves!” now say, “Someone better take care of these people.”
Would I like lower taxes? Sure. But I live in a complex age when government must be equally complex—when it must protect and serve deep in the oceans, high in space and on the streets and skyscrapers of our communities; when it must educate the exceptional and not just the average; when it must treat and deliver water to a burgeoning population; when it must protect us from financial deception and consequent recession.
I live in a complex age when the public hospital can save me from massive burns; when libraries can give me free access to a literal world of information; when crime labs can identify the bad guys before they kill again; when ozone warnings can advise me how to minimize further damage; when radar and tornado sirens can save lives; when public medical schools can ensure that there are physicians and nurses to treat my urban and rural neighbors; when soldiers and intelligence teams must protect my nation from terrorists overseas; when death and disease can be prevented with research, persuasion and education; when the unemployed need extended benefits for not working; when the governor of Arizona wants a wall between her state and Mexico.
We’re all quick to say we want less government and lower taxes. But we’re slow to sacrifice services that affect us, our livelihoods and our personal passions.
Given those expectations, government in this crowded, complex world will cost lots of money. But one look at the oily Gulf shows that a world run by and for an unleashed private sector would cost even more.•
Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at email@example.com.