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.
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.
If you attended a state college or university, you benefited from one of America’s greatest investments in its people, the creation and expansion of affordable higher education. How did we get this network of 1,600 state colleges? Through a remarkable collaboration of the states and the federal government that began in the Civil War. It shows us federalism at its best.