One of my favorite tv shows right now is NBC’s Parks and Rec. The show follows along (mockumentary style) with the comings and goings of a small-town Indiana parks department. The main character on the show is a cheery hardworking woman named Leslie Knope played beautifully by the effervescent Amy Poehler. As the show has progressed we have learned two very important things about Ms. Knope: she has a first class work ethic and a devout belief that government can be a force for good. On the show her “political belief system” foil is a no nonsense “mans man” named Ron Swanson. Ron’s character is brilliantly played by the left of center actor Nick Offerman, so well done in fact that Ron has become an internet sensation. On the show Ron’s character is a devout libertarian who only eats meat and “hates one thing more than lying: skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”
Recently Leslie’s character has become more proactive in her search to use the local government to better the lives of its citizens
and I found it telling of our larger American problem of government. We have forgotten the role of government and we have allowed that role to become — all encompassing.
I wanted to share two examples from the show and argue that it’s indicative of our current political morass and not simply farce for entertainment.
First, in an episode from a few months ago titled “Bailout”, Leslie uses her position as a city councilwoman to save a dying video rental store. The local government quite literally “bails out” the store and she offers advice to the owner that he provide movies renters may actually want to see instead of the art house cinema he had been offering. All the while Ron’s character argues that it is a waste of taxpayer money and the store does not “deserve” to be in business. Hilarity ensues as the store owner decides to turn the rental store into a pornographic movie rental store, and Leslie must do damage control on the government’s decision to subsidize porn. Exaggerative? Maybe.
The second example comes from a more recent episode entitled “Swing vote”. In this episode Leslie and Ron square off as they both try to win the vote of another city councilman on an issue they both feel passionately about. Apparently their city subsidizes a local miniature golf center, and that funding is under threat of cancellation. Leslie hopes to convince the council to continue funding the local attraction while Ron cannot think of a worse way to spend taxpayer money. Leslie argues that the locale is a family treasure and the money is well spent, while Ron never really gets past the fact that the government should not be involved in games like these. Over the top? Perhaps.
There are moments I cheer Ron Swanson’s attacks on government in the show, but they generally come as one-off’s in situations where he is simply offering commentary to a much larger issue. (For an example see this gem, Ron teaching However, it’s generally at the moments I feel like cheering loudest when I wonder if I am being made fun of? Do the show’s writers realize that Ron is 100% correct or are they caricaturizing fiscal conservatives? Either way, Ron is usually right, and while Leslie’s motives may be pure… government usually screws up the effort to do good with bureaucracy. In both example episodes what frustrates me is that Ron’s character never really offers a more cogent argument than “It’s not the government’s job” or “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money”, and that’s sad. Leslie’s character often elucidates why the government’s involvement is necessary or even good while Ron’s character does little more than show disagreement with his pensive facial tics.
In both episodes we are shown a failing business enterprise that the community obviously no longer connects with (which is why they are both in need of government intervention). Instead of allowing the private sector (or market) to determine what happens to these businesses, one person who believes they should exist, steps in and uses public money to save these “businesses”. In one the government’s involvement becomes a farce as the business turns to seedy enterprise to make itself profitable. In the other example the obvious problem is that the business will continue to lose money, even as the government subsidizes it… would that money not find better use in other programs? Like feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless?
The examples used from Parks and Rec are meant to be humorous but they are not that outlandish. Last week our government debated the continued subsidy of the helium industry (),
and here is it’s chief defender
… I kid you not. See? Those sitcom episodes aren’t that embellished after all.
We have become complacent, allowing the government to step in to areas they need not. We can blame an ever growing bureaucracy but perhaps we should blame ourselves. If we want to change the wasteful, destructive way our government works we have to start by stopping the Leslie Knope’s of the world. The ends don’t justify the means and trying to use government as an agent of good doesn’t work — it only leads to wasteful spending and hardening partisanship.