For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
January 29, 2009 - government needs moral sanction, too
At the beginning of last year's campaign season, I attended a fundraiser. It was for a good local man, running for an important office. I put more of my own money into the little basket than I ever had before for a politician.
Then I had a chance to chat with him, along with some of his other supporters.
After a while, he said he had to make a little speech to the party faithful. And what he said astonished me.
Almost the first words out of his mouth were along the lines of "Of course we all know that government is incompetent and inefficient." He then went on to praise the can-do efficiency of the business world. Remember that this was just at the time we were learning about the lending crisis, and a host of other private sector misjudgments, over-reachings, and dubious ethics.
I couldn't help but notice that I had just paid this guy to insult me. Working for an independent library district is working for government. As it happens, I'm proud of that work. And I put the library's efficiency, competence, and integrity up against any organization's, public or private.
I stuck around for awhile, thinking and listening. I found that my candidate's views were widely and uncritically shared by his supporters. Then I left. After thinking some more, I made some decisions.
First, I unaffiliated from the party that encourages such public statements of contempt for the people's business.
Second, I decided that when politicians stand up and say that their fundamental belief about government is that it is pathetic and stupid, I shouldn't vote for them. And I certainly won't contribute to their campaigns anymore. They're liable to provide governance that lives down to their expectations.
Third, I decided that from now on, I'm not going to just sit back and let people publicly undermine institutions that matter to our culture. I will defend them, because something is missing in our time: a moral sanction for the public sector.
That last phrase is lifted right out of one of my favorite author's works: Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." First published in a time when there was a lot of negative talk about the private sector (1957), Rand offered a defense for capitalism, for individualism. She envisioned a world in which free and rational people proudly exchanged their time and labor for other goods and services they deemed of comparable worth.
I liked a lot of that philosophy. I still do.
But 51 years later, things have turned. Now, we uncritically accept business practices that are in fact profoundly destructive of our shared lives. And we blast the integrity and worth of the many good people whose passion lies in public service, who work intelligently and effectively to build systems that allow both individuals and communities to thrive.
Productivity should indeed be encouraged, acknowledged, and rewarded. But intelligence, passion, and competence can be found -- or are notable by their absence -- in both public and private sectors.
I've learned that while people think they understand private sector pricing (costs plus profit), they are completely befuddled by public sector cost-accounting. Most citizens have no idea what the job of government really is. Nor do they know what it costs, or what value is secured thereby.
So here's this week's radical thought: if we want good lives, we need to have an environment in which both business and government are valued, supported, and held accountable. Otherwise, we're ideologues, saying things just because they're expected of us, and heedless of the damage we do.
LaRue's Views are his own.