The Lesson of the Snow Plow

February 10, 2010 - 4:54 AM
 The one regular benefit everyone in my neighborhood gets routinely from local and state government is the use of local streets and highways. Until it snows.
When a big snowstorm hit my suburban Virginia neighborhood last weekend, the question was: Will the government ever plow our streets? Four days later, as another storm approached, the answer was: not yet.
 
A few blocks over, residents stuck a hand-lettered sign in a snowdrift imploring the state department of transportation to please plow their little lane. It was pure sarcasm.
 
Where I live, two things are certain in life other than death. One is taxes; the other is that taxes will go up. Every year without fail, the local government reassesses the value of your home. Virtually every year, it determines the value has risen and slaps you with higher property taxes.
 
You also pay a state income tax every time you earn a dime, a state gasoline tax every time you fill up your car and local sales taxes every time you purchase almost anything else.
 
If you are a law-abiding, property-owning, middle-class person and do not send your children to the local public schools, state and local government is simply a bad deal for you. There are few regular benefits you get in return for all the taxes you regularly pay.
 
Yes, it is true that you get a police and fire department—and these are worth paying taxes for even if you never directly need them to protect you and your family from a criminal or a fire. Arresting criminals and putting out fires are public goods, and local government provides a public service when it does them—just as the federal government provides a public service when it, say, stops terrorists from boarding U.S.-bound flights.
 
It is also true that where I live, a truck comes by once a week and takes away your garbage and your “recycling,” provided you have properly classified and separated your rubbish and hauled it out to the curb in the correct government-prescribed containers. A private garbage company, however, could handle this job just as well.
 
A few times in the fall, a different truck comes by and vacuums up the leaves that have fallen in your yard, so long as you pile them up beside the street before the appointed leaf-collection day. Yet, a private garbage company could do this, too.
 
The one regular benefit everyone in my neighborhood gets routinely from local and state government is the use of local streets and highways. It would not be practical for a private company to replicate this service. It seems reasonable that we pay taxes to state and local government so state and local government, in return, can build and maintain roads that provide us with freedom of movement in our privately owned cars and trucks.
 
But then the snowstorm came. And we have discovered that although we are dependent on government to maintain the roads we drive on, it is not a high priority for the government—at this moment at least—to restore our access to those roads and thus to maintain our freedom of movement.
 
Government officials seem to be rationing their limited supply of snowplows. They plowed the interstate. They plowed the main arterials. But they did not plow the residential streets where most people live.
 
As soon as the storm stopped, small bands of shovel-bearing entrepreneurs moved through my neighborhood clearing people’s driveways for a fee. As a result, many local driveways were quickly cleared all the way down to the snow-laden street. People who had the money and foresight to invest in four-wheel drives and other vehicles with heavy carbon footprints could make their way to the roads the government had plowed.
 
In some neighborhoods, friends told me, local property owners paid private contractors to clear the residential streets. These people could get out, too.
 
But people who were totally dependent on the government to provide them with the basic service of a road on which they could safely operate an ordinary car were out of luck—and stuck.
 
Maybe government should run the heath care system, too.