The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 demolished segregation in the South and took steps toward righting the terrible wrongs visited on African Americans. For these reasons, we should give thanks to the federal government. But these two laws also offer us important lessons today about why and how governments take historic actions—and how government actions can remove barriers to changed hearts.
Farmers markets have caught on in big cities since the 1970s, and a major reason is that governments have subsidized and facilitated their growth. Why? Because farmers markets create “positive externalities,” benefits that are much greater than their costs. They bring neighborhoods together, improve health, and make city life more affordable and enjoyable. And they’re another way government improves our lives.
Every state has some form of vocational education, which is often called career and technical education. But this vital public service suffers from too many providers and not enough supply. This is a casebook example of how government could do a better job, if a leader would step forward. And it may be that only the federal government could play that leading role, as it did in the late 1800s in shaping American colleges and universities.
The principles behind public libraries—that they are open to any resident’s use, lend books for free, and be supported by taxes—were considered outlandish to most Americans in the mid-1800s. But an incredible act of philanthropy in 1883 changed how people thought about libraries, and local governments seized the opportunity to build and support these institutions. Today going to the library is twice as popular as attending sporting events. For these places of learning, you can thank both philanthropy and government. But mostly government.
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.