I work hard to genuinely understand the views of those with whom I disagree. For me, it is not only a point of honor, an exercise of practicing what I preach, but also I find that I can learn important aspects of issues I might have otherwise missed, and that even if I don’t substantially change my views because of the encounter, I have most always felt it worth the effort.
I must say, however, that I am quite perplexed by the rise of a blanket antigovernment sentiment I am seeing increasingly. The first time I noticed it explicitly was in a “listening session” held by my freshman congressman, Adam Kinzinger, last spring. Kinzinger was one of those many young Republicans swept into office by Tea Party voters in the 2010 election. Since he is a PoliSci graduate of the state university where I teach, I attended his listening session, which turned out to be almost exclusively a one-way communication focused on the great wisdom of the Paul Ryan budget proposals. Well, OK, that’s about what I expected anyway. But in the course of his presentation, Kinzinger made many totally knee-jerk antigovernment statements that really surprised me. The most bewildering statement, confounding enough that I remember it clearly all these months later, was to the effect that only private sector jobs, not government jobs, can be counted as “real” jobs. This seemed like a very odd thing for him to say, given that he is a product of public and state schools, has spend all of his adult years preparing for and gaining public office, and was surrounded even that day by a cadre of buff-cut young staffers on his payroll who very likely would tell similar stories. It made me wonder just what the heck they were teaching over there in the PoliSci Department. But I just shrugged it off at the time-if my years of teaching have given me anything, it is an amazing tolerance for the excesses of youthful enthusiasm!
But this sentiment is popping up in many places now, and coming from people, such as the current slate of Republican “candidates,” who really ought to know better. I am genuinely perplexed by this. Just the other morning we had a letter to the editor in our local paper, under the title “Government is nothing but a spending machine!” In this letter, the writer, who I am sure thinks he was making sense, stated that “…government produces neither goods nor services!” I stopped short on that one. Is it possible that neither this fellow nor any of his family, nor any of his employees, have benefited from a public education? Is it possible that he does not drive on public streets, roads and highways? Does he not daily enjoy the protection of public police, fire and emergency services? Does he not enjoy public parks, pools and recreational facilities? Does he not appreciate the social insurance provided for himself and his family by Social Security? Does he not take for granted the control and protection of government regulators every time he buys medical supplies, meats and other foodstuffs? Does he not recognize that because of government regulated licensing procedures, he does not have to personally investigate the qualifications of every physician, lawyer, dentist, CPA, psychologist and social worker he may need to employ? Does he not appreciate that it is because of government zoning enforcement that a toxic waste dump cannot be placed right next to his property? The list goes on and on for any person who takes a minute to think about it.
I would be the first to grant that there is plenty of “waste and fraud” involved in the way government spends tax dollars. But let’s remember that by far the largest share of that waste and fraud comes from private-sector people contracting for government programs, who deliberately depend on cost overruns and other forms of fraud, knowing well that there is inadequate funding available for proper oversight. But the fact remains that government programs, products and services (schools, parks, safety, roads, food, air and water regulations, to name only a few) represent the closest thing we in this country to “common wealth” that enhances the general quality of life and thus raises the standard of living for all citizens. While I want to respect and understand the views of all fellow citizens, it is very difficult to comprehend this current knee-jerk antigovernment sentiment as more than a sort of adolescent antiauthoritarian shriek. Please, fellow citizens, we can surely do better than this.