Sometimes when you listen to people you hear the way they think. When we have a problem to solve, how we think about it, how we frame it can determine our ability to find a solution.
Many people see government as a vending machine. It’s a mysterious thing that takes our money and gives us back something we expect to be of equal value. If it doesn’t work we cuss it and kick it. If the candy bar is stale or melted, we cuss it and resolve not to put in any more quarters.
Does this image work for you? Should the services we receive from the government we elect equal the money we put into it in taxes levied?
If this is how you think government should work, then just how much is your safety worth? Government cannot ensure safety, but we expect some modicum here in the United States, don’t we? We don’t have roving bands of armed drug-lord-paid para-militaristas shooting up our town centers. Most of us live in relative safety. In fact, we are more likely to harm ourselves than be harmed by others here in Idaho.
What price would you put on justice? Or should justice just be something you get, like a candy bar, when you put enough money into the machine? On a trip to Washington DC I took a picture of the inscription above the columns of the US Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law. We here in Idaho are struggling to provide adequate defense for those charged with a crime and unable to afford their defense. Maybe you think they shouldn’t get the candy bar.
Do clean water and clean air have a value? I’ll bet you’d pony up more than a quarter if you didn’t have it. If you do, do you think it just comes for free?
I watch the arguments around public education in our state and the vending machine image sits right up front. If we pay teachers more will the test scores come up? If we make college more affordable will salaries rise? What will I get from this vending machine for my quarter?
Taxes are painful if you think you aren’t getting “your fair share”. I was heartened to find US citizens actually pay their federal income taxes at a pretty high rate; around 86%. And this compliance rate has been consistent for years. We beat most European countries, the UK at 78% and Italy a mere 62%. Are we suckers?
I wonder if this will change much as our faith in our government seems to be eroding. Almost 70% of Americans trusted government before the Vietnam War. Our faith rebounded under Reagan after the Nixon/Carter decline. But we have been below 25% of people who have faith in the government for ten years now. So why do we keep ponying up our quarters to this vending machine in which we have such little faith?
I think it’s because our local governments are doing a good job. We have little faith in Washington DC, but our city water systems and streets keep working. And we know our local mayor or city council. We should anyway.
The vending machine way of thinking can build distrust. One essay I read suggested government should be considered more like a barn raising. We all get together, share our different skills, energies and resources to accomplish something it would take just one of us way too long to accomplish.
So, get out and vote for your city council, your mayor, your fire district candidates. Your vote is just some of the work you can do. Don’t figure they can get this work done without all of us chipping in. Keep your quarters, raise a barn.