This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

June 9, 2004 - the public good

Recently, I attended a workshop entitled "W(h)ither the public good?" As I have noted several times in this space, many Colorado libraries (particularly municipal libraries) are in trouble, caught between the pincers of declining sales tax revenue, and a surge in public demand.

Among our speakers were Senator John Evans and Susan Thornton, 8-year mayor of Littleton. The question before them was "what IS the 'public good'?"

Thornton was clearly a library booster. She spoke of the importance of public libraries in the maintenance of an informed electorate.

Evans, who has generally been a strong library supporter in the legislature, was less positive and more blunt. He didn't believe, given the fiscal constraints of Colorado State Government, that we were ever going to see any library funding again.

He also had this message: "find your niche," he said, "and fill it." His theme was very much of a piece with the philosophy of the dominant Republican party. (That's not surprising, as he is Assistant Majority Leader.)

He underscored the importance of competition. He seemed to be saying that there is no difference between public and private entities. They both compete in the local market for support. The proper role of government was to remove burdensome regulations from the public sector to enable it to compete more effectively.

(That's a little ironic. To date, this legislature has both eliminated 79% of library funding, AND imposed an unfunded mandate on Colorado libraries in its recent filtering legislation.)

His observations were leavened with comments about the tax burden on the average family.

I do understand the perspective. But I think it's time to challenge the underlying premise. In brief, that premise is that there IS no public good; there is only the market place. Moreover, many prominent Colorado legislators seem to believe that taxation is theft, pure and simple.

I have a different view. And that's not because I work in the public sector -- rather, I work in the public sector because my views are different.

Taxation is a cooperative purchasing agreement. It is the means through which we buy things we cannot afford individually. Moreover, it is often the means by which a community pays for things no business can make money on.

I used to wonder at the fact that public mass transit systems always had to be subsidized. But then I realized that ALL public transportation systems, most obviously roads, also have to be subsidized. Yes, there are tollways, but they are built with public bonds.

I believe that there IS such a thing as the public good. I believe that some kinds of taxation buy me and my community things that we need and would otherwise do without. I believe that government, and the people in it, provide services that both add value, and are invaluable.

Consider the bombing of the Twin Towers. You didn't see stock brokers and insurance sales people running into the buildings to save lives. You saw firefighters and police. Public servants.

On a more homely level, I can assure you that if my parents had had to independently purchase a library card for me when I was a child, it wouldn't have happened. But because the cost was spread among so many, that institution, offering a broad range of services, was available not only to me, but to many other blue collar children. Many lives were changed, enriched, even saved.

Tax dollars aren't stolen goods. They are investments. It doesn't make sense to me to cut my tax burden by $25 a year, if it increases my direct costs by $150, and I have to borrow $50 to meet the bill.

That isn't to say that any tax is a good one, or that government always uses my money wisely. In that respect, the public sector is much like the private (Enron, Qwest, etc.). Human institutions are only as good as the people in them.

My point is this: there comes a point where the rhetoric of smaller government becomes a kind of social suicide.

The right question isn't, "Who needs government?" The question is, "Are we getting our money's worth?"

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