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.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29, 2009 - government needs moral sanction, too

At the beginning of last year's campaign season, I attended a fundraiser. It was for a good local man, running for an important office. I put more of my own money into the little basket than I ever had before for a politician.

Then I had a chance to chat with him, along with some of his other supporters.

After a while, he said he had to make a little speech to the party faithful. And what he said astonished me.

Almost the first words out of his mouth were along the lines of "Of course we all know that government is incompetent and inefficient." He then went on to praise the can-do efficiency of the business world. Remember that this was just at the time we were learning about the lending crisis, and a host of other private sector misjudgements, over-reachings, and dubious ethics.

I couldn't help but notice that I had just paid this guy to insult me. Working for an independent library district is working for government. As it happens, I'm proud of that work. And I put the library's efficiency, competence, and integrity up against any organization's, public or private.

I stuck around for awhile, thinking and listening. I found that my candidate's views were widely and uncritically shared by his supporters. Then I left. After thinking some more, I made some decisions.

First, I unaffiliated from the party that encourages such public statements of contempt for the people's business.

Second, I decided that when politicians stand up and say that their fundamental belief about government is that it is pathetic and stupid, I shouldn't vote for them. And I certainly won't contribute to their campaigns anymore. They're liable to provide governance that lives down to their expectations.

Third, I decided that from now on, I'm not going to just sit back and let people publicly undermine institutions that matter to our culture. I will defend them, because something is missing in our time: a moral sanction for the public sector.

That last phrase is lifted right out of one of my favorite author's works: Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." First published in a time when there was a lot of negative talk about the private sector (1957), Rand offered a defense for capitalism, for individualism. She envisioned a world in which free and rational people proudly exchanged their time and labor for other goods and services they deemed of comparable worth.

I liked a lot of that philosophy. I still do.

But 51 years later, things have turned. Now, we uncritically accept business practices that are in fact profoundly destructive of our shared lives. And we blast the integrity and worth of the many good people whose passion lies in public service, who work intelligently and effectively to build systems that allow both individuals and communities to thrive.

Productivity should indeed be encouraged, acknowledged, and rewarded. But intelligence, passion, and competence can be found -- or are notable by their absence -- in both public and private sectors.

I've learned that while people think they understand private sector pricing (costs plus profit), they are completely befuddled by public sector cost-accounting. Most citizens have no idea what the job of government really is. Nor do they know what it costs, or what value is secured thereby.

So here's this week's radical thought: if we want good lives, we need to have an environment in which both business and government are valued, supported, and held accountable. Otherwise, we're ideologues, saying things just because they're expected of us, and heedless of the damage we do.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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