In the 20th century a remarkable partnership between the federal government and the states and localities transformed American farming by teaching farmers about new crops, methods, and technologies. Imagine what something like cooperative extension could do in the 21st century for people living in cities and suburbs. Here’s why this government program worked so well in the past, and why it might be a model for our times.
The National Weather Service has created a huge infrastructure of radar, satellites, ocean buoys, aircraft sensors, hurricane-hunting airplanes, and volunteer storm spotters to keep us aware of changing weather conditions and warn us of approaching storms. These forecasts and warnings are growing more accurate by the day. So what does the government charge for this life-and-death service? Nothing. Public safety is one reason we have governments.
Sidewalks were invented in big cities in the 1800s as a way of separating people from the filth of streets. They found a second use in the 20th century as a way of separating pedestrians from automobiles. After World War II, sidewalks declined in popularity, only to rise again in recent decades along with urban trails. Throughout, governments have been the key to pedestrian access.
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.