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.
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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