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.
With few exceptions, every time you travel on a street, road, or highway, you are on something built and maintained by a government. These are enormously expensive and land-hungry investments, but without them, modern life and a modern economy would be impossible. So, next time you walk, bike, or drive on a city street—or catch a bus to work—give some credit to government for making your journey possible.
If you’ve ever opened a bank account or invested in the stock market, you can thank government for making these everyday investments secure. When did the government get into the business of keeping Wall Street honest and banks sound? During the greatest economic calamity of the past century, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Here’s how the federal government created its regulatory structure, public corporations and banks accepted it, and we have all benefited as a result.
At the start of the Great Depression, 90 percent of farm families had no access to electricity. President Franklin Roosevelt solved the problem with an ingenious system of finance and self-help, and brought modern comforts to millions. We have a similar problem today in large sections of the country that have no high-speed connections to the internet, isolating families and throttling small-town economies. We can thank government for turning on the lights in the 1930s. We’ll need it to step up again a century later.
America is a vast country with large populations on both coasts. Twice in our history, the federal government has stepped forward to connect the coasts: with the building of the transcontinental railroads and, a century later, through the interstate highway system. Both were enormous undertakings that brought economic benefits to all Americans. No private company or collection of companies could have managed either of these tasks on its own. If you’re looking for a textbook case of why we need government, here it is.