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.
You can learn a lot about government by studying disaster relief. You can see how federalism works, and why it sometimes doesn’t. You can learn about scale and proximity. You can see why best practices are important in crises. Finally, you’ll learn why professionalism, focus, and good management are as necessary for government as they are for business.
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.