There it was, 463 words into Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." With those words, spoken in 1981, a movement that had abscessed on the fringes of political chatter since the 1930s reclaimed power. The words meant nothing in themselves. Characteristic of Reagan's copious plagiarism, they weren't even new. They were a retread of the Harding-Coolige-Hoover slogan that "the business of America is business."
Every "expansion of government in business," Herbert Hoover had said, "poisons the very roots of liberalism -- that is, political equality, free speech, free assembly, free press, and equality of opportunity." That is, exactly the values reactionary Republicanism, aided by the courts it'd been packing since President McKinley's day, clobbered as it turned the 1920s into "the most expensive orgy in history" (as F. Scott Fitzgerald would describe it in 1931, when the party was over), "the whole upper tenth living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of call girls." That was before the orgies Reagan, that value-added conservative, unleashed in the 1980s, and that his dry-drunk ideological godson George W. Bush managed to squeeze in between two recessions. That they used government to underwrite their upper-class orgies while calling government names is among those elitist ironies men-of-the-people like Reagan and Bush chose not to consort with. It helps to live in the world of slogans.
But in the real world, is it really true that government is the problem, that business does it better than government? Not in my experience. Getting naturalized a citizen of this country was simpler than getting bogus charges taken off my cell phone account. Getting my passport or driver's license or tags renewed has always been more pleasant and efficient than dealing with the cable company (long since abandoned). Filing taxes? Give me that over dealing with health insurers any day. At least with tax returns, I usually get money back. Insurers just garnishee my wages and shave years off my life. I envy my parents' comparatively non-existent Medicare bureaucracy, and their complete freedom to choose what doctor they please -- up to and including the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, which I'd have to pay for on top of the $5,000 I pay in private health insurance premiums for me and my family for often mediocre services and artery-clogging bureaucratic grief. Seems to me private-sector insurance is the problem here, and government the demonstrable solution.
What of government's evil interference in my everyday life, the president's spying on my email and phone calls abroad notwithstanding? Let's see. This morning I made coffee. I took the clean water for granted. But if it weren't for the city utility staying in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act -- that horrible big-government intrusion -- I might be having dysentery by now. If it weren't for the Clean Air Act and smoking bans in most public places I might be coughing up a lung. The coffee maker, the overhead light in the kitchen and the computer that powered on this morning did so without a hitch. My family and I might have been toast a long time ago if it weren't for the government-required wiring inspection.
For breakfast our eggs and milk didn't give us all salmonella because somewhere along the food chain what's left of our government inspectors made sure hens and cows pecked and mooed about cleanly enough, and federal regulation -- that other nasty disease -- compelled businesses from the farms to market to follow basic sanitary rules. And no, I don't think they'd follow them if they weren't made to. Amazingly, I didn't have to dump out the family waste by the window. Just as my local government contracts with (and supervises) a company to take care of the trash and the recycling every week, it also pipes off the other stuff, treats it, and either recycles it or dumps it in environmentally acceptable ways. All that before 8 a.m. I could go on (or you could, at governmentisgood.com), but you get the point.
Then again, probably not if you're among those Florida voters who opt to kill property taxes every chance you get then holler at the school board for closing schools, holler at your principal for firing your child's favorite teacher and scrapping your other child's favorite sport activity, holler at county government for cutting out bus service, code enforcement, library hours, roadside pick-up and road maintenance, holler at your local utility for fouling up the water, at your local park ranger for disappearing and at your local police department for reducing patrols in your neighborhood -- then turn around and holler rote insults at the next "liberal" who suggests that taxes and government may not be the evil you make them out to be.
No, government isn't the problem. Your votes are.
© 2008 News-Journal Corporation