My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
May 16, 2003


It seems to me that in fortunate countries, many of the greatest blessings are negative ones that reflect the absence of something -- starvation, epidemic disease, a daily struggle to find water, for example. These blessings go unappreciated because we take them for granted, assuming that they are normal and natural; of course our children will survive past the age of five, of course we can easily drive from Iowa to Disney World, of course our meat won't poison us. They are blessings that can be appreciated fully only when they suddenly disappear, or by people who know what it's like to live without those benefits. Which means we also fail to appreciate the centuries of human effort that went into creating those negative blessings.

In countries of the blessed we assume that safety, order, protection from the randomness of the universe, is the norm. We expect that our buildings and bridges will not fall down, that women will survive childbirth, and that if harm does befall us, ambulances and fire engines and helicopters will come to rescue us. Americans have assumed safety from attack within our borders. And we have assumed our rights to the fullest civil liberties in the world -- the freedom to think and speak as we choose, to worship (or not) as we choose, to have our privacy respected. When those assumptions are suddenly brutally called into question, as with September 11 and the limitations subsequently imposed on our freedoms in the name of safety, we are terrified, but even more, we are outraged, as if promises had been made to us and broken.

And yet none of those assumptions could have been made as recently as 200 years ago -- and many of them cannot be made now in third world countries. We can make them now only because of our failure to remember our history.

My grandfather died in 1918 in the flu epidemic that took more than 20 million lives worldwide, more people than died in World War I. In the fifties, my mother and all the other mothers were afraid to let kids go swimming lest we come down with polio, a truly terrifying disease in the days when an iron lung was all that would keep an infected child alive. She and other parents determinedly collected nickels, dimes and dollars for research on the vaccine that saved us and subsequent generations of children from that scourge. I have often thought that only people who have never known widespread preventable diseases like polio, whooping cough, and diptheria, could refuse to vaccinate their children, and even campaign against childhood vaccinations. They don't seem to understand that the absence of those diseases is not the norm, not even the result of unusual good fortune, but the result of good planning and good law that cuts the size of the pool of susceptible people the disease needs in order to incubate.

Americans seem to assume that we are safe from cholera, typhoid, malaria and such simply because these diseases don't happen here. Maybe some of us don't know how much effort and money our governments expended to make sure that these epidemics wouldn't happen here ever again. We are the beneficiaries of public officials who built water purification facilities, sewers and sewage treatment, a food inspection system, and public health agencies that closely monitor any hint of epidemic disease.

Intelligently planned government services, in fact, are among the pleasures that are only appreciated in the negative. You almost have to visit third world countries, where roads are few and far between, public health facilities lack basic equipment and refrigeration, and officious government agents have to be bribed to do their jobs, to understand the value of good government.

Americans assume the availability of government services of all sorts, sometimes without even realizing that they ARE government services. We assume the ability to take a daily shower even if we live in a city in the middle of a desert, without it ever occurring to us that taxpayers provided the dams that routed that water to our taps. We assume roads and airports, schools and libraries, mail delivery, parks, bridges, emergency rooms, police and fire protection, weather forecasts, medical research, and prisons.

We have long assumed that public education, the means by which our children can improve their chances in life, is a right that is naturally free and universal. But that's a comparatively recent idea, and a luxury in human history. Believing that talent is distributed randomly in the population and unwilling to waste it, America's educated elite built the public education system in the 1800s so that anyone who wanted to learn would have the opporunity. The schools and libraries and public colleges they built Americanized generations of immigrants and trained them to be doctors, scientists, teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs who, in doing well for themselves, enriched America as well. When our soldiers returned from World War II, a grateful nation sent them to college, where they became professionals and businessmen.

Unfortunately, Americans have a notoriously short attention span; once we've put the systems in place, we tend to forget about the need for maintaining them. And yet, if we don't maintain them, the systems will break down. If we constantly cut the budget for meat inspectors, we cannot expect safe food. If we constantly cut the budget for repairs to bridges and dams, some of them will collapse and kill people. If we cut the budget for emergency services, they may not arrive in time to save us. If we don't maintain the sirens, they may not work when a tornado is coming. If we constantly demand more from public schools while cutting their budgets, children in decaying, overcrowded schools with demoralized teachers will not have the chance we were given to develop their talents and contribute to society.

We are at a watershed right now, I think. Increasingly, anything that governments do that can conceivably turn a profit for somebody is being opened up for competition, while those services that cannot possibly make money are left in the hands of government agencies which are then condemned for bad financial management. Fed Ex and UPS skim the most profitable parts of mail service and leave the post office the money-losing proposition of providing inexpensive delivery of all classes of mail to every address in the country six days a week. Private schools skim the cream of the crop of children, leaving the public schools to deal with children with mental, physical or behavioral handicaps. Funding shrinks for the public policing of all neighborhoods at the same time the amount spent on private security forces for small exclusive neighborhoods expands dramatically. Private rail services take all the profitable business of hauling heavy goods and leave Amtrak the unprofitable business of carrying passengers across a sprawling continent.

Public and private services are then compared as if they are doing the exact same thing, and it is loudly ballyhooed that private services are doing it better. If the public services can't cut the mustard, we're told, we should divert their funding to the private services that can get the job done.

What this means, I'm afraid, is that we are about to test my hypothesis: we will find out the hard way that one of the pleasures only appreciated in its absence is good government. And that's a pity, because creating it all over again from scratch is going to be difficult.

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