Thursday, April 15, 2010

fancy ride in a free car

in this week's new yorker (a decent issue so far, much to my relief), there is a cartoon of a man standing in front of his burning house. he's holding his hand out to stop the approaching firefighters and the caption reads, "no thanks, i'm a libertarian." it's a fairly typical new yorker cartoon, minus the dog on the therapist's couch and aggravatingly precocious kids.

well, except that there are people who really believe this. if you know me at all, you know i spend more than my fair share of time wondering about people who really distrust the government. i view them like a different species because they fascinate me in an unironic and not-too-judgmental way.

a few days ago, the journal featured an eye-opening story on colorado springs, the second largest city in colorado. voluntary labor and donations are taking over the administration of community centers, garbage collection, street lights and even the police force:

Taxi drivers have been recruited to serve as a second set of eyes for stretched police patrols. Residents can pay $100 a year to adopt a street light. Volunteers are organizing to empty the garbage cans in 128 neighborhood parks. The city is asking private swimming programs to operate its pools, and one of the city's four community centers soon will be run by a church.

granted, colorado springs is the home of focus on the family, not exactly a bastion of progressivism. and yes, colorado springs represents a trend of sorts. like most other cities in america, colorado springs must confront the twin problems of decreasing tax revenues and inflated budgets left over from rosier days (and, in the case of california, a third problem: the inability to raise tax rates). the numbers are not adding up, and more and more drastic measures are being introduced as a result. in fact, new york city just floated a proposal to charge the working homeless rent for shelters. in addition, unemployed homeless people (or at least one individual in a homeless family) will be required to obtain a job before qualifying for a shelter subsidy.

i definitely do not idealize government. it can be and is often inefficient, bullheaded and wasteful. and like in virtually every other aspect of life, many have figured out elaborate ways to game and manipulate the system. even though i've been tempted on more than one occasion to remind government workers that my tax dollars are funding their salaries, i don't really think i'm getting my money's worth when i'm arguing with time warner for the umpteenth time or the asshole at the apple genius bar rolls his eyes at my "problem." so what do people want?

"Let's start cutting stupid programs that cost taxpayers a pot of money," says Tim Austin, a 48-year-old former home builder now looking for a new line of work. "It's so bullying and disrespectful to take money from one man's pocket and put it in another's."

ok fine. but you know, while it's nice to believe that a group of local residents will convene to collect trash in the surrounding area, good luck with that. i'd much rather have a group of people with some degree of accountability and monetary incentives dealing with something as important as basic sanitation. and who's to say what's stupid?

then it makes me think, am i cynical for not believing in voluntary collective action or are the others cynical for eschewing government? is cynicism the issue? are we all mistaken about others' motivations? is there some public/private sweet spot?


cold4thestreets said...

whoah cold4thedeepthinkingposts over here. how am i supposed to do my trademark biting, snarky comment (but with a heart of gold)?

also, the problem with libertarian theories is that they live in the minds of numbnuts who are uninterested in exploring the contours of said ideas. don't get me wrong: we can debate about the reach of our government, but we can't really debate about its purpose.

so colorado springs residents can adopt traffic lights and pick up trash, but can they do urban planning? can they come up with innovative ways to compost and reduce landfills?

gimmicky collective action in the service of libertarian philosophy, like libertarianism itself, is cute and all, but it runs counter to the goals of societal progress. we need to pay taxes, and develop infrastructure, and have a government that innovates. we need to restore and reinforce democratic institutions. that's the only way forward.

for those who disagree, i'd love to take a trip out to the more lawless parts of yemen and pakistan with you, where income tax collection isn't exactly a societal priority. i understand that this an extreme example, and i offer it for illustrative purposes only, but the illustration is worth noting: in those places, weak governments give rise to authoritarian local institutions, ones that find delightful new ways to torture their constituents. there aren't many traffic lights in these parts of the world, and no municipal trash service. just deepest, darkest blight.

happy tax day, bitches! next year i get to claim a dependent!

E said...

yeah, sorry to get all deep thoughts on you. this shit really bothers me and i needed to flush out the hodgepodge of ideas clogging my brain.

how many american cities have functional urban planning depts anyway? the vast majority of this country is so NIMBY that people fear sensible, centralized (horrors!) urban design.

but i'm sure some will think i'm crazy bc i prefer a public park to a back yard, and i really hope to never own a car.

maybe i'm a socilismist.