Potholes and the Crisis of Confidence

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April 16, 2009

Early in April, a group of neighbors on Chicago 's West Side purchased eight bags of cement mix and a push roller, gathered their shovels and rakes, and set to work fixing the potholes that plagued their street. The whole operation cost under $200.

On the other side of the country, on Hawaii 's Kauai Island , frustrated residents donated time and equipment to repair Polihale State Park , which had been damaged by flooding. The endeavor, which the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources estimated would require two years and $4 million, was completed in a surprisingly rapid eight days. 'Just like everyone's sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn't wait anymore,' Ivan Slack, a local business owner, told CNN.

These two instances'uprisings by fed up residents, if you will'expose the ineptitude of governments that are put in power to help the people, but when it comes down to it, never seem to get around to doing their elected job. For the residents of Chicago 's West Side and Hawaii 's Kauai Island , help never came and they decided to take matters into their own hands.

If business owners and volunteers on Kauai Island can finish repairs in eight days at minimum cost, repairs that the state government grossly overestimated at two years and $4 million, that begs the question: Of what use is the state government? If the islanders had waited for help to arrive, their businesses that depended on tourism to the state park would have gone belly up.

In the same vein, every winter the roads in Chicago literally crumble under the weight of traffic. Taxes continue to increase, but the city can't seem to keep up with the demand for repairs. Frustrated residents ask, where is all that money going? The situation is an embarrassment for the city council and the mayor, who predictably aren't happy with the actions of the do-it-yourself minded citizens.

It should be an embarrassment, because government bureaucrats all over the United States (not to mention the world) justify their paychecks by continually planning for and responding to problems they never intend to actually solve. Why is it that the Ming Dynasty was able to build a wall that lasted for over 2,000 years, yet our local and state governments cannot build roads that last for one?

Worse yet, as in the case of the Daley Machine in Chicago , these governments continually complain about a lack of funds, which supposedly prevents them from effectively responding to the infrastructure crisis. But we know that funding isn't really the problem. In March, Kentucky Fried Chicken offered to fix potholes for free, as long as they could stamp 'Refreshed by KFC' over the patch. Chicago refused the offer, saying that they do not allow printing on city streets. It seems to me that if the budget was really in a crisis, a few stenciled notes would be worth the savings.

Chicago 's refusal, however, has little to do with paint and everything to do with a government demanding the exclusive right to solve problems in public spaces. After all, if a company can fix potholes at no cost to the taxpayer, and a few neighbors can get together and clean up a state park, why do we need the government and its bloated agencies? Its ineptitude calls into question its legitimacy.

At the end of the classic movie 'Clash of the Titans,' after Perseus' triumph, one of the gods asks, 'What if courage and imagination become everyday mortal qualities? What will become of us?' To which Zeus replies, 'We would no longer be needed.' Likewise, I can imagine the bureaucrats in Chicago asking each other, 'What would become of us if everyone starting fixing the potholes themselves?' Unfortunately, as Zeus adds, 'For the moment, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth and mendacity down there on earth to last forever.'

Until more people join the ranks of the citizens in Kauai or on Chicago 's West Side in solving problems for themselves, we will be stuck under the yoke of comedians who say they need $4 million and two years to fix a park and, for some reason, continue to be taken seriously by the general populace. It is time for us to turn our backs on the bureaucrats and seek solutions elsewhere. If the residents of Kauai would have waited, they would have lost their livelihoods. We can no longer afford to surrender time and money hoping for someone else to come and save us.

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Michael Kleen's picture
Columns on STR: 36

Michael Kleen is the Editor-in-Chief of Untimely Meditations, publisher of Black Oak Presents, and proprietor of Black Oak Media. He holds a M.A. in History and a M.S. in Education, and is the author of Statism and its Discontents, a collection of columns on the topics of Statism, liberty, and their conflict. His columns have appeared in a variety of publications and websites, including Strike-the-Root.