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Joplin ... and the Role of Government in Our Lives

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A few days ago, I watched the Joplin Memorial Ceremony attended by President Obama, the governor of Missouri and a host of others. Something has stuck in my craw since viewing that ceremony. Someone -- I believe it was Governor Nixon -- made an impassioned reference to "Good Samaritans," and how what the Joplin area needed was the assistance of a Good Samaritans to help them in their hour of need. A noble sentiment.

But the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the fact that the people of Joplin do not just need well-intentioned people who are generously willing to help. They need cranes, forklifts, teams of engineers, logistic experts, and a huge quantity of food, blankets and other supplies, accompanied by the means of getting these goods to them NOW. All of the well-intentioned individuals on the face of the earth won't suffice.

And who is the only entity on the face of the earth with the wherewithal to provide what the people of the Joplin area need -- and to get it to them while it still matters? The only entity that fits this billing is government. And despite all of the "government is the enemy" rhetoric of the last thirty years, the fact remains that it is government, and only government, that we turn to when we face an issue of existential importance, like a massive natural disaster, the need to fight a war, or to educate all of our children.

Because the people of Joplin need more than good intentions, they need to be the beneficiaries of years -- perhaps decades -- of pre-planning. There will never be any "profit" in such an undertaking. The private sector can be a viable means of delivering many goods when there is a profit to be had, but many of the things that we value most have no profit potential whatever. When something is of existential importance and we want it no matter what, we expect to be able to turn to government -- and only to government -- for help. After all, isn't government the name we give to those activities that we think are this important: the global health, safety, and well-being of all of us?