I felt pretty old this year. My wife and I bought a house last fall, just days before having our first child. Now that I’m both a father and a homeowner, I have more kinds of insurance policies than I even knew existed a year ago, and I suddenly have opinions about property taxes and school boards.
As a young bachelor, I found it easy to be disdainful of social welfare and government intervention. Now that my responsibilities extend beyond renting an apartment and playing video games, issues that were black and white before seem a lot more complicated.
Montana has a long history of being distrustful of government — our Facebook page would list that relationship as “complicated.” Politicians from Back East don’t have a strong grasp of what life is like out here, the distances and empty spaces are hard to understand from looking at a map or reading a Wikipedia entry. A gun law that makes sense in Baltimore may seem stupid in Butte. A speed limit that is prudent in New York may feel glacial on U.S. Highway 87. Federal programs with the best intentions suffer from bureaucracy and redundancy and inefficiency, and evolve into monstrous systems that nobody set out to create.
State and local government manages a little better — your councilman may live on the same block as you, and your state representative is a rancher or business owner or teacher, not a full-time politician. But some people view even local government as, at best, an unnecessary annoyance and at worst, small-scale tyranny. A lot of ink has been spilled over Havre’s cellphone-use driving ban, for example. But while I’ve recently learned the pain of paying property taxes, I must admit I like having a reliable sewer system, an effective police force and roads that — most of the time — can be driven without the use of four wheel drive.
During this year’s presidential race, a lot of noise was made over the phrase, "You didn't build that." Business owners are responsible for their own drive and initiative, no government program made them successful or wealthy. Sometimes, though, we forget that we depend on vast systems of publicly funded infrastructure.
Interstate highways, safely regulated food and medicine and airspace, legal systems, patent laws, national defense and noncommercial research programs all foster an environment of opportunity where anyone can work hard and find success.
Unless you’re a survivalist trapper living off the grid, you need a functioning society in order to live comfortably. Part of our social contract is that we give back to that society by paying taxes, donating to or volunteering with charities, and creating opportunity for others so that the next generation of citizens will have access to the same level of security and success we had.
When we refuse to give back to society, we’re actively discouraging the next generation from succeeding the way we did.
Recently a group of Hi-Line landowners announced they would close their lands to public hunting — a long-held Montana tradition — as a way of protesting perceived injustices at the hands of the state. They certainly have the right to do as they please with their private property, but that attitude of punishing neighbors to spite the government ultimately hurts all of us.
Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, got a lot of criticism from conservatives for being thankful for federal help when Hurricane Sandy devastated the east coast. It can be easy to disdain government assistance, until a crisis comes and you have nowhere else to turn — just ask Rocky Boy residents who lived through the flood of 2010.
President Ronald Reagan once quipped that the most terrifying phrase in the English language is “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” As a father and a husband and a homeowner, it’s much scarier in times of need to hear, “You’re on your own.”
(Caleb Hutchins is design editor for the Havre Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com)