What is government for?
That is the question at the root of all political philosophy, and by extension, all punditry. After all, the way we evaluate how well a government is functioning is by comparing its operation with its mission: is the state doing what it is supposed to be doing? If so, how well?
I began my most recent book by cataloging the areas of “broken-ness” in American governance–what I (and most commenters to this blog) believe to be areas where our government is failing to perform. And that, of course, raised the question: what should government do? Why do humans need the collective mechanism we call government (at least, beyond restraining Leviathan, per Hobbes)?
My conclusion–with which, obviously, you all may differ–is that government is needed to provide necessary infrastructure–both physical and social.
The dictionary defines infrastructure as the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”
Most of us are familiar with this definition in the context of physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid, public transportation, etc. Within the category of physical infrastructure I’d also include physical amenities like parks and bike lanes. Schools, libraries and museums probably fall somewhere between physical and social infrastructure. Purely social infrastructure includes laws that prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and the various programs that make up what we call the social safety net.
I have just returned from Europe where I attended a conference in Stockholm; on the way home, I stopped in Amsterdam to see my middle son, who now lives there. Sweden and the Netherlands vastly eclipse the U.S. when it comes to both kinds of infrastructure.
The academic conference I attended was on “Social Citizenship,” a concept commonplace in Europe and utterly foreign to Americans. (The conference was focused upon the effects of significantly increased migration on the social unity fostered by the European approach to social welfare–tribalism isn’t restricted to the U.S.and Europe is far more diverse than it was even a decade ago.)
Social citizenship and policies that support unity are topics that increasingly intrigue me; my most recent book focused on them and I routinely blog about them. But right now, I want to rant about physical infrastructure.
I took the subway in both Stockholm and Amsterdam (In Amsterdam, I rode their interconnected transit system, which includes trams, subway and buses). In both cities, the subway stations were immaculate, and there was lots of public art. Electronic signs informed passengers when the next train was due–usually, within 4-5 minutes. The cars themselves–and in Amsterdam, the trams–were shiny and clean, and looked new–although in Amsterdam, my son said they were several years old, and simply well-maintained.
Well-maintained. What a concept…
It wasn’t only public transportation. Streets and sidewalks looked equally well-tended; in Amsterdam, according to my son, sidewalks throughout the city are replaced every 30 years. Also in Amsterdam, where there are 1.3 bicycles for every resident and absolutely everyone bikes, protected bike lanes are everywhere–usually, they separate the sidewalks from the roadways.
Thanks to robust public transportation and the culture of biking, there were far fewer cars on the streets than there are here, and among those that were I saw numerous hybrids. Efforts to use clean energy were prominent. (Coincidentally, a friend just sent me an article about a European consortium that plans to deploy 1,000 fuel cell buses in European cities, and to provide the necessary hydrogen infrastructure.)
All in all, the clear impression was that we are a community, and we care.
In these European cities, government’s approach to infrastructure provision appears to be a collective effort to ensure a workable, efficient and pleasant environment for all citizens–not a grudging and slapdash accommodation for those who cannot afford private vehicles.