What Does Government Do Well?

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In the St. Louis area, and probably in your part of the country as well, there is something called the Adopt-A-Roadway program. Private individuals, firms, and organizations "adopt" a section of road or highway, and periodically clean up litter from the roadside. You might think, at first blush, that the purpose of the program was to keep the right-of-way tidy and neat, but not primarily. According to the St. Louis County Highways and Traffic website, the objectives of the program are: "to create public awareness of the environmental problems and the cost of unsightly littering along County roadways," and, secondly, "to improve the appearance of our neighborhoods." Neighborhoods? Hiway 40 is a "neighborhood?" Well, never mind. The great domestic political movement of the present era is environmentalism, so a program to con some citizens into cleaning up the highway might stand a better chance if it’s linked to the environment, somehow.

But who owns the roads and highways? Some government entity, of course. Why, the roads of this great nation are too important to entrust to venal private owners! It’s odd, then, that the government recruits private individuals to police its own property. Of course, those private individuals can’t simply clean the roads from time to time, when they seem to need it. No, a schedule must be followed, and the cleaners must follow the rules set forth by the state or municipality. It’s all well and good for private individuals or groups to do the government’s work, mucking about the roads picking up trash; but they certainly can’t be allowed to do it any old way! I mean — if I had dinner guests who offered to wash up after the meal, I’d be good enough to let them do it, but only after they agreed to my procedural guidelines, and followed my rules. I may be kind-hearted and generous, but I’m not an utter fool!

Anyone visiting St. Louis will likely spend some time in Forest Park. It’s one of the country’s largest municipal parks, and at nearly 1300 acres, it’s about 500 acres larger than Central Park in New York. It was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympic games, and contains, today, the Art Museum, Natural History Museum, Muny Opera, Zoo, several lakes, boathouses, jogging trails, an ice-skating rink, golf course, cricket ground, handball and tennis courts, a magnificent greenhouse (The Jewel Box) and ball fields. And, until fairly recently, it was falling apart — if a park can do that. Though an undoubted jewel, and a prime asset of the City, it was not maintained. Roads were in terrible shape, buildings in poor repair, fountains inoperative, and decay was everywhere. Again, private citizens to the rescue. They formed an organization called Forest Park Forever, and raised about 50 million to help restore the park. The city did its part, or at least its usual thing: it provided about 56 million — by selling bonds. These are being repaid by a half-cent increase in the city’s sales tax. In other words, a valuable government asset is being rescued, once again, by private efforts when government can’t do the job. And what government does contribute is obtained via coercion, as opposed to the voluntary donations provided by Forest Park Forever.

I’m not aware of any suggestion that the city sell the park to a private group like Forest Park Forever. Good heavens, No!! It’s the city’s crown jewel. Of course, the city can’t or won’t maintain or improve it, but why should it? If things get bad enough, some private individuals will come forward to save the city fathers’ bacon. And those elected worthies can generously contribute, by forcing others to pay their share.

Would any government consider selling the roads under its jurisdiction? Good grief — Never!! Of course, the roads are littered with trash and potholes, but never mind. When conditions have deteriorated sufficiently, some civic-minded individuals will come forward and save the day.

Is it simply that the state hasn’t the money? Not according to its own publication of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which shows that, for many years now, the state’s annual surplus of revenue over expenditures came to about two billion yearly. But why spend it when you can con volunteers into doing your job?

But what, one wonders, IS the government’s job? If it cannot maintain its own property — roads or parks — without private help, what can it do? Don’t ask.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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