Imagine new occupants of a large historic building who decide to do a major remodeling project, and they do not take the time to learn how the building was built and what previous structural changes were done to the building. They tear into this column, that wall, or that beam, without thinking that these are indeed load-bearing walls and beams that keep the building standing.
The remodeling fever we are seeing in Washington and the Statehouse involve trashing all things public: public schools, public services, public health, and public employees — the load-bearing foundations of democracy and daily life.
The most meaningful insight I gained from serving on the City Council involved learning the functioning of government at the community scale: police protection, fire protection, water, sewer and inspection services, planning services, utilities, arts and cultural services, a fantastic library, community center, great schools and services for children with special needs. I get up every morning thinking about these public services and the people who make them happen, and I am grateful.
That is why I find it astonishing that so many people continue to fall for the falsehood that “government is bad.” Many of us immigrants have come from countries that have fallen apart in violence and disorder in the absence of a functioning government. Thousands of U.S. troops have died to establish a decent governing process in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here at home, we are told government is bad, private-everything is good, corporations are the greatest, and all things public are bad. Do our troops serving in Afghanistan know about the rush to diminish government at home?
Because government means “us,” less government means “less us.” It almost always means more corporate interest, not public interest, making decisions for us, and invariably leads to more inequality, injustice, and disparity. Worst of all, it means fewer public services. We have heard “government should be small,” but why have we not heard “corporations should be small and their influence on government limited?”
Less self-governance, providing fewer services, has produced results: contaminated eggs sickening thousands and contaminated meats killing children because we have not inspected and protected our food supply. Inspection services supposedly are “too much regulation.” Toxic releases, polluted air, contaminated drinking waters, the national financial crisis are all clear and predictable results of “less regulatory burden,” “less government” and more corporate irresponsibility.
Let us not forget that our properties, our lives, our neighborhoods, and our businesses are richer and better because there is police and fire protection, law, order, a system of fair courts, and regulations. We are better off because we are situated in and are beneficiaries of a publicly organized infrastructure that offers basic services to all, including protecting Iowa’s commonwealth which provide ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water. Public works.
While the process of governing ourselves is not perfect and can be improved, “less government” is no improvement. We are the lucky beneficiaries of many generations before us who gave so much to build this nation, but, as many of us immigrants know, democracy and self governance are highly perishable. They are not something we have, but something we have to make every day and nurture through our involvement. Like a garden, you have to tend it.
Kamyar Enshayan served on the Cedar Falls City Council from 2003 to 2011. Enshayan is director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches environmental studies. He has been a member of the Iowa Policy Project board of directors since July 2016.