Last September, Elizabeth Warren included a marvelous tribute to our infrastructure in a campaign speech: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” In July, President Obama made his parallel comments, from which context Republicans ripped “You didn’t built that”. Never mind the fundamental dishonesty of the way Republican attack ads attempted to take that completely out of context. The most coherent comments on the kerfuffle have addressed the importance of government attending to elements such as police protection and the Interstates as a component of our individual success, which I would have thought was so obvious that it didn’t need expression.

But there’s a definitional point to be made here as well, and both sides are missing it. There’s no surprise that those on the right miss it, because for them to admit it would be nearly fatal. It’s an incredible surprise that the Obama campaign misses it, considering how long their man worked as a community organizer. This point is that what we see as “government” actually has two major components. Some elements of government relate strictly to governing per se, and obviously can only be performed by governments. This is the realm of the police, the criminal justice system, foreign diplomacy, and national defense. But everything else that government does is actually organized community action.

Regardless of what Ayn Rand fantasized, and note that I enjoy reading Atlas Shrugged every few years myself, there comes a point in any community in which some things are done on behalf of the community that require an actual organized structure with administration, an investment in facilities, and paid staff. An Amish community might have the tradition of all pitching in to build one family a barn, and they might build a school the same way, but they actually arrange to have dedicated staff doing the teaching. That school might be in a volunteer-built building or in spare space in someone’s store, and teachers might be motivated by something more than cash payment to teach, but at some scale this ad-hocracy has to be replaced by something more formal. In the case of education, I believe that every single state makes the formal government responsible for funding and delivering the necessary services.

Please note that we don’t have state education because “it’s the law”, it’s the law because “we the people” have chosen to include it in the community action side of government.

The Mormon communities around the country have “welfare farms”. Those without jobs work there, those without income eat the produce. Most of us aren’t Mormons and have chosen to hammer out a system of welfare that is, again, part of the community action side of government.

There are places where men with bulldozers have, in a spirit of community, cut roads through the woods to connect their neighbors. But it’s not common, nor are investor-owned turnpikes. Again, we’ve chosen to create that infrastructure as part of the community action side of government.

Not all of our critical infrastructure is delivered by government. We move goods from creator to consumer over roads that are mostly government built, but private truckers, UPS, and a host of others make the delivery. The government made the internet possible, private companies (including yours truly) invest in facilities and deliver the bits. It would be remarkably dangerous to let government deliver the news, as has been demonstrated countless times.

So the big issue dividing the right and the left is not a question of how big “government” should be on some absolute scale. Fundamentally, it’s a question of what community services should be delivered by government, how well it should be done, and how widely those services should be available.

Note that in most cases, the wealthy don’t need the government to handle many things. They can pay for the best private schools and see doctors at the finest private medical centers. It’s the lower half, or maybe lower three quarters, of the community that lacks the resources to directly arrange these things.

In my mind, the question comes down to this: For what community services is government the most effective tool? Then the question of how big government should be is simply a matter of addition. If I Were King you can be sure that I would express these questions in exactly these terms. Because I definitely want to live in a community where businesses can hire well-educated help, know that they and their staff can affordably maintain their health, that they can procure the materials they need reasonably, that the money they spend and receive will be sound, that the courts will be honest arbiters of disputes, and that all of their transactions are protected by a system of law that allows them to compete on an even playing field.