Voices
Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber

Rest stop reminder

Why, against all evidence, are we giving so much power to government?

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

It's a nondescript stretch of Interstate 85, heading south through the pine forests from Petersburg, across Virginia's lower tier of rural counties. I'm not sure why the overpass crossing the interstate caught my eye. Maybe it was that the dozen or so vehicles up there so clearly outnumbered the few down where I was on the much more spacious highway.

That's when I noticed, as we swished under the overpass, the name of the highway: "Poor House Road." It was a busy place.

And then it was only a few hundred yards to the next and much more poignant reminder. It was a rest stop-but orange barrels stretched across the exit, framing a scrawled "CLOSED" placard. I remembered reading that the Commonwealth of Virginia, trying desperately to balance its budget, is closing 19 out of 42 rest stops across the state. The bureaucrats say the closures will save $9 million over the coming year-or about half a million dollars per rest stop. Nor are the barricades just a temporary measure. Plumbing and wiring are being disconnected, and "fixtures" relocated to other sites.

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I'm not sure how to measure the literal discomfort such measures will produce. Truckers are upset for obvious reasons. The American Automobile Association is protesting. So are groups like the National Association of Blind Merchants, which for a number of years enjoyed something of a monopoly servicing the vending machines at rest stops across the country.

My father-in-law has often put our family's economic issues in perspective with the terse wisdom that says: "If you can't afford it, you don't need it." OK, I thought, as my morning's coffee percolated through my system. But does Virginia's decision that it can't afford it mean that I don't need it? My blood boiled a bit as I pondered the mismanagement (not just in Virginia, but across the country) that spends millions on a facility like this and then discovers it doesn't have a measly $1,300 a day to operate it.

The total savings claimed by Virginia's Department of Transportation through closing the 19 rest areas amount to just one-third of 1 percent of the $2.6 billion shortfall the department is trying to solve. I know every penny counts. I know that when budget problems show up, you've got to start somewhere. And I'm quick to admit that the disappearance of 19 rest areas in Virginia is probably not the biggest concern of most WORLD readers as we close out our summer schedules and head into a busy fall season.

I stress all this, though, and devote most of my space this week to the mundane matters of Virginia's rest stops, because the issue points so vividly to the lesson we all find so hard to learn: Even though big government does so very few things notably well, we keep asking those same big governments to take over more and more of our lives. Bureaucrats who can't figure out how to keep already-constructed rest rooms operating are expected to be successful in running something as complex as America's healthcare system.

Against all the evidence, the Obama administration is now within a perilous cat's whisker of persuading the American public to make the biggest transfer in history from mostly private transactions to a mostly statist affair. Never mind that New Deal Social Security, Great Society Medicare and Medicaid, and Bush-era Prescription Drug Benefits are all on life-support, with no actuarial chance of resuscitation. Never mind Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a stimulus bill that has missed all its sponsors' major predictions, and a Cash for Clunkers program that "ran out of money" it only pretended to have in the first place. Why isn't such real-life experience more instructive?

But maybe there's a little hope. Polls, tea parties, and town-hall protests suggest that this time the people "out there" are ahead of Congress, the administration, and all the bureaucrats. Maybe the cumulative effect of all these years of pretense is sinking in. Maybe it's time to recall Abraham Lincoln's great summary: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Wouldn't it be wonderful if our generation were the one that proved the truth of Lincoln's prediction?

And if it takes something as earthy as a barricaded potty-stop to get our attention, maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Joel Belz, click here.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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