I recently finished re-watching the old Western movie “How the West Was Won.” The movie, like so many old Westerns, was a story of brave and hardy pioneers who moved west in the face of uncertainty and danger. My generation grew up on such movies. Cowboys, fearless lawmen, tough women, and assorted rugged individuals were our heroes. We love the rugged individualist and consider self-reliance a necessary virtue. To look to someone else for help or protection is typically thought to be a sign of weakness.
What is easily overlooked in the saga is the fact that only rarely could the individuals stand completely alone, and then not for long. They traveled in wagon trains for the good of all. They built homes and barns and ultimately towns by working together with neighbors. They came together to hire the courageous marshals and judges who secured law and order. They developed communication and trade to improve their lives as isolated individuals.
In modern life, the values of individualism play out in political terms, especially around issues of regulations, entitlements and big government. Self-reliance is especially a way of life in rural America. In fact, the term “nanny state” is one of derision and disdain; the term implies wimpy individuals who want help and goodies with no personal responsibility other than to be takers.
A second set of beliefs is in frequent partnership with disdain for the nanny state. Those beliefs group around the claim that the (individualistic) private sphere is ALWAYS a better way to address issues than is the public sphere. Governmental functions are considered to be inherently wasteful, intrusive and inefficient in comparison with private functions. These beliefs play out in the increasing assumption that success (typically meaning wealth) in the private sector is a sign of superior ability. For example, the appointment of Betsy DeVos to head the department of education assumes that her prominence in the private sector makes her perspective more valuable than that of professional educators who actually teach children.
Let me be clear at this point. I believe the current political climate has contributed to a badly unbalanced view of the roles public and private can best play. No one likes picky rules imposed by arrogant bureaucrats. No one enjoys paying taxes. Government is too often big, wasteful and entrenched. We all benefit from a strong business/private sector, but that business sector may not best serve needs that are vital to the health and well-being of all. My plea is that WE Americans need to exercise a great deal more wisdom in how we consider the benefits of each.
I take medicines, drink water, eat food and breathe air that I trust are not dangerous to me. None of these basic activities is ensured to be safe without the oversight and regulations provided by government agencies. There have been times and places when safeguards were not in place, and tragedies resulted. We so take these safeguards for granted that we easily forget the role of government in their very existence.
Private sector businesses may be beacons of integrity, or they may choose to pursue immediate profits with little or no concern for the public consequences. Businesses and their executives are no more immune from corruption than are self-serving politicians. Let’s not forget Enron or the subprime mortgage fiasco and resulting recession, for two examples.
Locally, I walk trails and play in the parks with my grandchildren. I know that I can dial 911 in an emergency and police or firefighters will rush to my aid. I drive on paved roads and safe (presumably) bridges. My trash and my recyclables are picked up weekly at the end of my driveway. My children were educated in public schools. All of these are public functions, and I pay taxes to assure that they are present.
There is little or no profit but much service and quality of life found in the public sector. Sadly, the current climate of knee-jerk rejection of any tax increase causes us to take advantage of our police, firefighters and other public servants by paying far less salary and benefits than they deserve. In reality, public schools and public infrastructure are also sadly underfunded.
Public/private initiatives may be a way to minimize taxes and government inefficiency but again wisdom is called for. We must recognize that a toll highway or a private charter school or a public/private water department is vulnerable to unexpected price increases in order to meet profit goals of the private investors. In such a partnership, the private partner may well have zero accountability to the public; you and I simply must pay what is charged. Seeking a more efficient operation and showing a profit for it are not bad motives, but they have consequences for the public good. A local example is that the public/private contract for the Forum has made it far more expensive — even prohibitively so — for nonprofits to rent for their functions.
Individual responsibility and initiative are at the heart of our personal and national identity. The private/business sector is the social and political embodiment of these important values. On the other hand, there are safety and quality of life issues that are public issues for the good of all. Those issues must not to be evaluated only by the standard of whether they are profitable. Neither private nor public is all good or all bad. In the America we dream of, both should be in the service of WE THE PEOPLE.
The Rev. Gary Batchelor, an ordained Baptist minister, is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.