Roost: Government will never be ‘the problem’

By Amy Roost

When the Cedar Fire ravaged San Diego County, I lived in the High Valley section of Poway. My husband and I evacuated our home with two boys, three dogs, two cats, an iguana and rooster and relocated to a friend’s house off Del Poinente. That night we sat in lawn chairs in their driveway staring east at the mesmerizing glow of the fire as it headed straight for our home.

Amy Roost

The next day, as rumors circulated that fire crews hadn’t ventured into High Valley for fear they’d get trapped, we waited on Espola Road for the police to let us return to what was or wasn’t left. I’ll never forget the relief I felt when we reached the crest of High Valley Road and saw our red tile roof in the distance below. What we couldn’t see from that vantage point was how narrowly we had escaped the claw of the flames. Firefighters (an engine company from Laguna Beach left us a message written in our sons’ sidewalk chalk) had set a fire line on our property mere yards from our house.

Without power, we purchased a generator and for 10 days cooked on a camp stove and read our children bedtime stories by candlelight. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce them to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. We watched in awe as replacement utility poles swinging from helicopters were air dropped into place. When we drove through Poway proper we saw homemade banners thanking first responders for saving the homes, schools and businesses of our community.

The convergence of the Cedar Fire’s 10th anniversary with the recent government shutdown acts as a stark reminder of why we have government in the first place. Oh sure, governments have their drawbacks. They can be inefficient and intrusive. I no more want the government in my uterus or asking me for my papers than my conservative friends want to be told they must be insured or what type of bullets they can purchase.

But the theory behind government, to serve and protect the “polis” or people, is solid. Think of it this way: The purpose of a roof is to protect us from externalities. To the extent it does so, we are free to go about our business while inside without a thought to the roof that protects us. If the roof begins to leak, we don’t tear the whole house down. We repair the roof and go back to the freedom it affords us.

The fact that our government is increasingly dysfunctional, or “leaky,” doesn’t mean we should tear it down or “drown it in the bathtub” as Grover Norquist has suggested. If we did drown it, then what? One impractical alternative would be for each of us to hire his/her own body guard and firefighter, pay to pave the roads that get us to and from work and the grocery store, sanitize one’s own water supply, etc. A more talked about but also impractical alternative would be to trust the free market to protect us.

The privatization of prisons is an illustrative example of what this might look like. The privatized prison industry has lobbied for tougher sentencing. More prisoners equals more prisons equals more profits. What if we also privatized fire departments? Would sending firefighters up High Valley Road have been cost efficient? Might we see private industry lobbying for denser brush, more flare guns, greater freedom for the National Firebreather’s Association?

Simply put, the marketplace is not designed to provide public goods such as public health, education, roads, research and development, national and domestic security, and a clean environment. Anyone who can remember the details of our nation’s recent financial meltdown understands the reasons why.

We can argue over the scope of government, and debate what are the optimal conditions for those it serves to flourish as individuals. But you won’t convince me that government is unnecessary, or “the problem.” I’ll grant you it’s not the solution to everything, but it deserves our respect not our ridicule. If all we do is point at it and call it names, then the leak will continue to grow. Then we won’t be free, we’ll just be wet and homeless, and someday my children will tell a bedtime story to their kids about a bygone era when brave and selfless government workers saved our little house on the prairie.

Roost is executive director of Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach and a freelance book publicist. A former Poway resident, she now lives in Solana Beach. Reader comments are encouraged.

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17 Comments for “Roost: Government will never be ‘the problem’”

  1. anon

    To serve and protect the people. In the case of our current leadership it should read, "to serve and protect only liberal zombies that agree with obama on everything."

    You see plenty of retaliation otherwise. Democrats embrace "my way or the highway mentality" completely disregarding and degrading anyone who thinks otherwise.

    There will be a day when this madness ends. Its coming.

  2. guest

    If the government is never the problem, then what is? Are the citizens the problem?

  3. D & D

    Amy, One day I'll take you serious. But for now, I needed a good laugh. Thank you.

  4. blahblah

    Government may not be the problem so much as those we have elected to serve are.

    • Amy, no one is I know is arguing for no government, only that the federal government is too big. We ask that the federal government be restricted to the Constitutional restrictions, or that those restrictions be changed by Amendment.

      Did you know that more than 70% of ALL firefighters are Volunteers? Completely non-governmental!

      Living as we do in a very urban area we tend to think everyone else does. Firefighters are local or state — and that's fine. Madison said: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite."

      The first argument those of us on the right in MY camp have is with the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, insofar as LAW is concerned. We argue state and local issues on whether the expenditures are wise. For example in Vallejo California, before it went bankrupt, a Firefighter with 10 years of service cost that city $232,000 each, annually. ( There were 20 such Firefighters.) that was legal — but not wise.

  5. Barry

    You actually make a very good point and I must agree. There are functions that are always inherently governmental and do not lend themselves to privatization. You correctly identify the two most obvious; firefighting and security Governing is of course among those functions.. That said, your commenters are also correct in pointing out that there is a perfectly reasonable expectation that they not be incompetent in the jobs we pay them to do.

  6. Tom Yarnall

    Amy, you have a digital mind, it is either fully on or fully off, just like Obama. There are no compromises. Yes, we need a government to keep order in our society, but we don't need them to run our lives 24/7. I pay for a hell of a lot more government that I want and you socialist are only making it worse. You, and your like, have bred so many "takers" we may be beyond the point of no return.
    Thank goodness for so many charitable organization and philanthropists who, unlike the government, can separate the wheat from the chaff.

  7. Rebecca Gremore

    Amy, you are a persuasive writer and know how to strum the heartstrings. But I must do my part and speak up and say that I believe you are naive and ill-informed on the topic. This may be due to limited exposure to others' experiences with overly powerful or costly government. (Read about the tragedy of Detroit, government run amok). Yes, we all appreciate the sacrifices of many of our service providers public and private, but we do not live in a world of unlimited and costless resources. We could easily quadruple the number of fire engines just to make sure fewer houses would burn in the next fire and so on. What is the right amount?

    • Amy Roost

      Usually the "right" amount for essential services is somewhere around the point of diminishing returns unless catastrophic consequences would result in cutting off funding at that point. As you pointed out, it's all a matter of titrating and finding the right balance. If I'm having brain surgery, I don't want a brain surgeon who doesn't put out the extra effort no matter how much smaller the incremental gain is per unit of effort. Nor would I want this to be the approach/attitude of an air traffic controller.

  8. Rebecca Gremore

    Life is a constant negotiation with the universe. I would never want my daughters to think that "government" is "never the problem." There is a balance to be had and society must make difficult choices with scarce resources as we do privately every day and on every level. (In fact, the ability to navigate these personal choices is a hallmark of maturity in our young people). Our differing agendas and values will bring about conflict and various types of negotiations will ensue. It is a process of optimization which will never be perfect for everyone at the same time. But it is an ongoing optimization in a world where we are in competition as well as possible cooperation with everyone from individuals to cities to states to nations. Limiting government at times and expanding it at other times is part of adapting to environmental constraints and opportunities. Free markets do that fairly well, but free governments can balance the power of the private sector.

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. It gives me a chance to communicate new ideas to others who may also have your viewpoint

    • Amy Roost

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply Rebecca. I agree almost entirely with what you have to say. And I should point out that the headline for the column (which I did not write) misrepresents me and the view expressed in the column. I did not say that government is "never the problem". (I just finished reading a wonderful book about a man's escape from communist Hungary that would more than demonstrates the abuse of power in the hand of the wrong people. ). And I agree with you that there is always a balance to be found, but we have government for a reason (many reasons) Anyone who says we need to drown it in the bathtub or keep it from functioning properly just to make a political point or garner votes for a prospective presidential bid, is doing all of us a disservice.

  9. Frank

    There is absolutely nothing that the government does, including govern, that can't be done ten times better with much greater effectiveness by the private sector. Witness the debacle with our current regime of twits which has taken stupidity and incompetence to a whole new level with literally everything they touch – a level that even Monty Python could not have imagined.

    Unfortunately, we have no entity left available to us to protect us from America's #1 enemy, that family of criminals doing Occupy Whitehouse, Occupy DC, Occupy Sacramento, etc. – all across the nation.. Some day soon I expect to write a wonderful book about my escape from Communist America. Unfortunately, you won't be able to enjoy reading it because it will be banned in Communist America.

    • EducatedThinker

      And to where do you plan to "escape?" Regardless, don't let the door hit you on the rear as you leave. Buh bye.

      • Tom Yarnall

        No need to escape ET. With the ever increasing number of states and true Americans wanting to secede, it is your lot that may be living in a foreign country in the future. You two bit socialist may just have to have a visa to visit Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and many other states that are really generating steam to secede since your savior, Obama, came to power.
        If you're smart you will take your Obama nose ring out before that occurs.

        • EducatedThinker

          No thanks Tom (and guest below); I'll leave the cutting and running to you two, Frank and the rest of your ilk. We Progressives are determined to continue our successful fight to improve this great country and save it from destruction at the hands of your kind. Fortunately, given enough time, we always prevail, just like we did defeating slavery, winning women's, civil and voting rights, providing Social Security, Medicare and now affordable healthcare for the less fortunate, cleaning up the environment, on gay rights, DADT and marriage equality, on religious liberty issues, and on so many other fronts where the rule of law ultimately prevails; and just like we will on immigration and campaign finance reform, and other issues too numerous to mention here. Now that the whole country has seen what the far right has to offer, I predict fair weather and following seas for Progressives. But hey, don't forget to write and tell us how life is in a theocracy or whatever place you so-called "Conservatives" would find acceptable. Do you speak Farsi? ;-)

  10. guest

    Ditto. Liberals can still apply for that one way trip to Mars. You are all so far gone that your minds have already beat you body there.

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