When Government Fails to Act, Citizens Do

As Americans, we generally agree that government should do some things, though we may differ strongly in what those things are. But what happens when government fails to perform its core functions? In the right circumstances, a strong political leader can make a difference. Under Rudy Giuliani’s leadership, for example, New York City made great strides in controlling crime, a basic function of government.

It can take a long time for government entities to shape up, however, and citizens can’t always afford to wait. That’s one reason why a free people must sometimes peacefully take matters into their own hands.

The City of Detroit has been afflicted by a bloated, incompetent government for a long time. Just recently, the city was nearly taken over by the state. Years ago, citizens in one neighborhood came together to do what city government should do well, but did not. The Historic Boston-Edison Neighborhood Association contracted with a private firm to provide security. Residents pay a monthly fee of $30, and the association jointly purchases services from a private security firm. Currently, the firm spends 60 hours each week patrolling the streets of the neighborhood.

When a road on the island of Kauai, in Hawaii, needed repair, state officials said residents would have to wait up to two years before repairs were completed. Citizens and businesses, many of whom depended on the road for their livelihood, organized themselves. They didn’t lobby the government. Instead, they spent eight days fixing the road, doing what the state said would take $4 million.

One business owner said of the effort,

We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part…. without the red tape of government or the self-serving interests of public unions.

Homeschoolers, for their part, aren’t content to wait for government-run schools to improve. Instead, they teach their children at home. Many organize together into co-ops, through which they share teachers for specialized or advanced subjects such as art or chemistry. Sometimes, a parent from the co-op does the teaching, while at other times the members pool their funds to hire teachers. By undertaking such activities, they continue the tradition of mutual aid and self-governance.

Health care, like education, is another human need that is often highly intertwined with government, and inadequately delivered. Federal and state governments minutely regulate health insurance, meaning that the decisions of government officials can have life or death consequences. While some people seek to improve the regulations, others opt out of insurance altogether. Health care sharing ministries serve over 100,000 people. Members of these mutual aid societies promise to share the financial needs of others, through means that don’t involve insurance contracts—or government.

Each of these efforts illustrates the private initiative of a self-governing population. Unfortunately, government can still get in the way. In Seattle and other cities, unions of city workers have stood in the way of individuals and companies offering volunteer help to clean up local parks. In Culver City, California, parents who offered volunteer labor to the local schools were met with resistance by a union, which wanted to control the money parents voluntarily spend to hire helpers.

When governments don’t serve the people, the people will find ways around the government. These obstacles, however, prompt the question: Should government serve the people, or should the people serve government?

John R. LaPlante as a senior fellow of the Free Market at the Center of the American Experiment and a contributor to TheMichiganView.com.