Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life-Saving Government?

One person who commented on my blog recently asked me whether government had ever saved my life, surely expecting that the answer would be "No."

The honest answer is "Yes," both directly and indirectly.

When I was an infant, I developed a serious infection that landed me back in the hospital. Penicillin had just become commercially available in 1945, and it cured that life-threatening infection.

What does this have to do with government? Although penicillin had been discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, it was an exceedingly unstable compound, and no method had yet been developed to produce large enough quantities to be used effectively in civilian populations. (It was used sparingly in the military during the latter stages of WW II.) This challenge was presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture chemical research facility in Peoria, Illinois, where scientists employed by the government understood the process of fermentation probably better than those in any other laboratory in the world. This facility, the Northern Regional Research Laboratory, is credited by the American Chemical Society as playing a critical role, along with industry, in developing mechanisms to produce penicillin in commercial quantities.

I was born in Peoria, and my dad, a Ph.D. research chemist, worked at that laboratory. But that's incidental to the story. Thanks to the government, thousands of babies were probably saved that year, and since then millions of Americans have benefited from the wonders of penicillin.

OK, that's the "direct" part. I can't tell you for a fact that my life has been saved by the safety devices installed in automobiles, since I've been fortunate in avoiding serious accidents. But thousands, perhaps millions, of lives have been saved by seat belts and air bags -- the installation of which was opposed by industry but eventually mandated by government regulation because of the slaughter on our highways.

I can't tell you for a fact that my life has been saved by the research linking smoking to cancer, since I never smoked. (OK, I tried it a couple of times when I was a teenager. But please don't tell my mom. LOL.) Anyway, millions of American lives have been saved by the knowledge that smoking causes life-threatening diseases -- despite sworn testimony to the contrary from tobacco company executives.

I can't tell you for a fact that my life has been saved by the food and water safety programs adopted by federal, state, and local governments. I do know that when killer bacteria (e. coli, for example) invade the American food supply, it makes the news, and recalls are mandated by the government. Would industry implement rigid contamination control measures on its own, without government mandates? Remember -- the purpose of industry is to make a profit, and contamination control costs money. Sure, proven contamination could shut down a meat plant, an event any smart executive would want to avoid -- but without the government, who would investigate where the contamination originated once it entered our complex interstate commerce system?

I can't tell you that my life has been saved by the efforts of government to reduce air pollution. But living in an area highly susceptible to the accumulation of dangerous particulates and ozone, I can tell you that I notice a distinct improvement in air quality over the last 15 years. And that has probably added several years to my life expectancy.

Yes, government has saved my life. Maybe it has saved yours too. Is this worth paying for? I guess that depends on whether you want to pay your fair share of taxes to support these worthwhile endeavors.

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