Opinion | Paul Olson: The government is not your enemy. The government is us.
I saw a sign on someone’s fence the other day: “Born free but taxed to death.”
I don’t know if this statement was just a light-hearted protest against an annoying fact of life or a more sinister loathing against all things governmental. The sad truth is that millions of Americans view the government as the ultimate bogeyman. This attitude is not beneficial to one’s mental health and can be dangerous for our nation.
Ronald Reagan told us, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” This quote made for a good sound-bite when said in 1986 and probably drew some laughs from the audience, but it also added to the negativism toward government that taints all current political discourse. Note that the statement was made by the person elected six years before to effectively manage our federal government. What a fine way to motivate all the government employees working under him!
The public is enchanted by simplistic approaches for taming the federal monster. Having no experience as a public servant, Donald Trump in 2016 boldly proclaimed, “I alone can fix it,” as if he were a super hero ready to deflect an incoming asteroid. If a candidate in Summit County said that he/she alone could fix our traffic problems or the local worker shortage, we would all have a good laugh and then elect someone else. Even local government is very complex and requires skillful management by a coordinated team of elected officials and government staff.
There is a bit of hypocrisy in our grumbling about government. Most surveys indicate that we greatly distrust politicians. Yet according to Ballotpedia, in the 2020 election 96 percent of all Congressional incumbents won re-election. If we are so unhappy with them, why do we keep rehiring them? There is general dissatisfaction with government spending and taxes but when voters are asked their opinion about specific programs such as Medicare or veterans’ benefits, the majority of Americans have a favorable view of what the government is doing and are against a decrease in funding. Thomas Jefferson summed it up well: “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”
Perhaps bellyaching has a cathartic benefit. Teenagers complain about teachers and parents. Adults gripe about the weather and government. The real danger is when constructive criticism morphs into anger and violence. A recent University of Chicago poll found that 28 percent of voters felt it would soon be necessary “to take up arms against the government.” We have seen the results of irrational rage. When angry people are put in charge they do destructive things such as not peacefully transferring power after they have lost an election.
Let’s not let the bitterness and chaos in Washington influence how we conduct ourselves in Summit County. Don’t you admire the people who can write a polite and rational letter to the editor that gently persuades us to consider a better government policy? Don’t you want to applaud the person who can eloquently present their case at a town council meeting without raising their voice or name calling? The same rules of reason and civility apply to our property tax bills. If you want to lower your assessment (don’t we all?) you have to put emotions aside and present your case in a diplomatic manner based on careful research of the facts. Our local elected officials are trying to do what is best for the local economy and the citizenry as a whole. Be respectful of them, and have some gratitude that they are for looking out for us even if you don’t agree with all their decisions.
It is okay to be part of the “in crowd” who roll their eyes at government imperfection, but it can also be good for your mental health to occasionally take note of what our public servants do right. There had been some road construction inconvenience in my neighborhood this summer, but now the streets are so smooth with not a pothole in sight. The 250 inches of snow that falls on my street each winter is promptly plowed away. And the Summit Stage bus runs on time.
Of the dozens of government employees I have met in Summit County, all appeared to sincerely want to be helpful to me and to do their job well. Government employees are just like private sector workers. They are paid to do a good job, and the vast majority take pride in pleasing customers. I have generally had the same experience with state and federal government workers. Even Internal Revenue Service employees have been cordial as they informed me I had added incorrectly. The government might not be your friend, but it is made up of many friendly people.
Paul Olson’s column “A Friendly Conservative” publishes biweekly on Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Olson has lived in Breckenridge since 1995. Semiretired, he works at REI in Dillon and enjoys snowboarding, Nordic skiing and hiking. Contact him at email@example.com.
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