Warburg: Don't tread on public service


Hyper-partisanship and the politics of personal destruction are plagues of our time. So, too, is the pervasive distrust of institutions citizens have built up and looked to for generations.

Many of the central pillars of our communities during the wonder years of the Baby Boom - churches, national television news, financial institutions from Wall Street to our local bank - have grown deeply suspect by our children. Government especially.

The national news is full of demagogues on the far right and left who play to voters’ fears instead of hopes. We’re certain to hear more this campaign season from candidates about The Evil Government Does. Cable TV has so many government targets to trash, from the NSA to cops on the beat to those bums in Congress.

Going back to John Winthrop and the Mayflower Compact, citizens have banded together to collaborate to provide public services. Security. Education. Fire suppression. Beginning with the New England town meeting, community resources were pooled to secure essential services. It is how we keep the nation safe, build roads and bridges, police the streets and put out fires.

It is called government.

Americans have, for generations, shared a healthy skepticism of concentrated power. The Framers built gridlock right into the 1787 Constitution.

Yet government today is caricatured by media and politicians as some distant unthinking alien Other. Actually, government is us, our fellow community members we empower and pay to help us meet voter and taxpayer needs.

Most citizens agree on the need for more efficient, transparent and accountable government. We can do so without vilifying anybody willing to perform public service.

The irony of many such attacks was captured in the arresting photo by Elaine Thompson of Associated Press on Aug. 22. It shows an exhausted and grateful homeowner in Okanogan, Wash., thanking firefighters for saving his house from one of the hundreds of wildfires in the western United States.

The Washington Post report that ran with the photo details the work of 29,000 firefighters bravely combatting these blazes.

The story reports on Colorado public health officials dealing with the public health advisory from smoke, the Federal Emergency Management Agency response teams, and the threat to public lands, including Glacier National Park. It notes that three firefighters have died fighting one California blaze and reports that federal agencies spent $1.5 billion last year to battle wildfires, in addition to large sums spent by local and state governments.

What is striking about the image is the message emblazoned on the T-shirt the grateful homeowner sports: “Less Government = More Freedom.”

Surely the irony was apparent to the photographer. It was, of course, a team of government-financed professionals who had just saved his home.

Most of us would welcome more freedom.

A fiscally conservative libertarian, I’m not wild about the NSA listening to my family’s phone calls or about higher taxes to send more money to Iraq. I wish we had jailed dozens of the crooks on Wall Street who have brought citizens so much grief with their housing loan scams and insider trading deals.

But surely amidst a national disaster, the value of investing in some government programs is clear.

The AP photo offers a metaphor for the public service challenges we face. Here, government service saved one man’s home. It saved many other lives and homes, while protecting natural habitat essential for health and recreation.

Americans welcome more private-sector leadership and public-private partnerships. But some services are still best provided by government.

Our decaying national infrastructure is one; some of our roads and bridges resemble those of a Third World country. Supporting our armed forces personnel and veterans is another.

Advocacy groups mobilizing voters uphold the finest traditions of democracy. But they should respect public service and acknowledge the community obligations that unite us.

So next time you hear somebody vilifying police or school teachers - or anybody in public service - think about how grateful that gentleman was to the firefighters. Backed by government resources, government workers saved his house.

Maybe don’t wait ‘til Veterans Day to express your appreciation to a solider, thank a firefighter, or hug a cop.

Gerald Warburg teaches at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.



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