Monday, August 17, 2009

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?

Today's newspaper column.

Sometimes, a little humor sheds light on big ideas.

In a scene out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Reg – played by John Cleese – heads up an angry group of insurrectionists tired of paying taxes and “not getting anything in return,” and hell-bent on taking back their government. The heavy-handed federal government was, in this case, the Roman Empire.

“They’ve bled us white” clamors Reg. “They’ve taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers’ fathers!”

Defiantly, in a rousing call to arms, Reg yells “and what have they ever given us in return!?”

Amember of the group sheepishly raises his hand and suggests “the aqueduct?”


“The aqueduct.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, they did give us that, that’s true” admits Reg.

“And Sanitation” said another.

“Oh yeah, sanitation,” chimed in Reg’s sidekick. “Remember what the city used to be like?”

“Alright” Reg retorted, “I’ll grant you, the aqueducts and sanitation are the two things the Romans have done…”

“And the roads!” piped another insurrectionist.

“Well obviously the roads! The roads go without saying, don’t they?” Now Reg is showing a bit of irritation, but staying on message, he plows forward. “But apart from the aqueducts, sanitation, and the roads…”

“Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?” Everybody’s into the act now and you can see where this is going.

But never one to let facts get in the way of a good populist uprising, Reg insists “All right! But apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health - what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Fast-forward to modern America and the sentiment Reg embodied in this silly little skit is alive and well. People love to bash the government – at all levels. It may be human nature.

But before pontificating on how the best government is the least government, or spewing out dogma about how bad government is, why not try engaging with public officials to problem-solve issues you care about.

Fact is, there are many areas where government involvement is not only viable, but necessary and beneficial. Take the interstate highway system, for example. If not for the federal government, a contiguous country-wide system of fast-traveling highways would not exist. That poster child of “big-government intervention” continues to pay dividends today in business efficiencies and personal over-the-road travel freedom long after the funds were allocated for its construction.

Transitioning to a clean energy economy is just one of the big ideas that government must take on if it is to become a reality. I bet you can think of others.

Watch the scene from Life of Brian.

1 comment:

fouro said...

Great point - all life's answers are in the movies; and all life's uncomfortable truths are well skinned in python, whether tv or film.

Ike's interstates are good, but lotsa people might think that's in the realm of credible govt action, yes? Not to mention he only managed to sell it veiled as a cold-warrior logistics necessity.

How bout fire departments too? Otiginally wful as private clubs in NYC or as insurance company-subscription services.... a private sector disaster when driven by the profit motive. Government is a referee organization, a tool. Like most orgs, it reflects its leadership--values thru to execution. To my eyes and ears, all this complaining, using faxed slogans and seeded narratives about socialism and tyranny isn't about government per se but about the shock of who heads it now. The woman who tearfully begged "I want my america back" is a perfect example: 100 years ago "her America" would have had the men in the room hustling her out to the street for having the audacity (hah!) to think that women had anything of substance to add to a political discussion.

Her America, our America, is an imperfect journey of progress just like free market fans love to remind us: More choices, new options, broader access to opportunity and its tools, creative destruction of outdated models, and always with someone begging for a little more time to get used to the idea of time marching on.

Sorry for the rant, James, excellent article!