Many of our public institutions today are under attack. Our roads and bridges are deteriorating. The branches of our federal government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial –seem more interested in self-promotion than in solving problems. Our own state has two former governors in prison, and the current leaders from both parties have failed to cooperate to take even modest steps to improve the state’s fiscal condition. The website designed to deliver affordable healthcare options to millions of Americans is not working. And America’s public school system is under attack for not adequately preparing our students to compete for the middle and upper class jobs of the future.
When we identify an institution as public, we mean that it is operated through the consent of the people, through elected representation and funded through taxation, usually with the goal of providing a public service. When we identify an institution as private, we mean that is operated through the consent of an owner or shareholders and funded through private capital, with the goal of turning a profit. Because both public and private organizations are operated by human beings, they are both capable of great deeds, and likewise, prone to mistakes and malfeasance.
We should remind ourselves that much of the criticism of our public institutions is malicious and strategic: malicious in that it is offered by persons or groups who are more interested in finding (or causing) failure than in solving problems, and strategic in that the criticism is often designed to defeat an opposing point of view rather than to uncover a truth. Some of the criticism, on the other hand, has merit. When this is the case, it is important to confront the brutal facts and to find the courage to be honest with ourselves.
The Constitution of the United States provides the framework of a democratic government – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Consequently, when we find ourselves disgusted with government, the place to start is by looking at ourselves. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, put it this way:
What institution of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue? All government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these. .. . The fatal effects of bad government arise from nothing, but that it does not sufficiently guard against the mischiefs which human wickedness gives occasion to.
When we are critical of our government or things public, it is important that our intentions be constructive rather than destructive. We should remind ourselves that any institution designed to ensure order and justice for all Americans is destined to be imperfect. We should also consider where we would be without our public institutions.