Building codes show us how governments make our lives safer while reducing costs for everyone. They do so one construction project or remodeling at a time, so their impact is nearly invisible. Until, that is, you look at statistics on fire safety, energy usage, or water consumption over time, where you can see that government has made enormous progress but done it quietly, steadfastly, at scale, and often in collaborative ways.
It’s a small but important way state and local governments make your life safer: They inspect elevators. Actually, though, this is not a small task because there are 900,000 elevators in America, making them the nation’s most common form of public conveyance. A century ago, when governments got into the business of inspecting them, elevators had frequent and horrifying accidents. They don’t now, and you can give some of the credit to the governments that inspect them.
Nearly everything about America’s armed forces has been debated since 1776, from the mission and size of the military to which governments should have responsibility for fielding and supporting an army and navy. Some of those debates were resolved by the Constitution, others by the experience of World War II. But from the earliest days until today, Americans have agreed that our armed forces should be under civilian command . . . and provided solely by government.
Nearly 228 million Americans have a driver’s license. They are legally required for driving a car, of course. But they are also the most commonly used form of identification, accepted for everything from boarding planes to cashing checks. How did state governments get in the business of testing and licensing drivers? Why not local governments or the federal government—or, for that matter, private companies? It’s a story of law, history, scale, and role.
Public transit didn’t start out as a government service. For more than a century, it was a for-profit industry that government assisted and regulated. When ridership declined and corporations abandoned the business, governments stepped in to keep transit alive. Why? Because buses and trains help cities work better. They also make urban life more affordable and appealing.