By Herb Strentz
Most of us engage in occasional self-delusion.
Maybe it’s the “hope springs eternal” delusion
that keeps Chicago Cub fans waiting until next
Maybe it’s thinking the lawn mower, recliner
or car that we can afford is every bit as good
as the high-end model we can’t.
Maybe it’s thinking that a spouse will see the
wisdom of our vacation plans and, in time, thank
us for finding that low-rent cottage on the
shores of Lake Delhi in Delaware County.
It’s all part of thinking we know what we’re
Other delusions can be toxic, a threat not only
to ourselves but to the nature of our civic
Concern with delusions comes with the 2012 presidential
campaign and the rhetoric that will torment
us for the next several months.
Here are three such ill-founded thoughts;
1. Government should be run like a business;
2. People can spend their money better than
government can; and
3. The news media are liberal.
Let’s take these in order.
Government should be run like a business! What
we mean by this is that government should be
efficient and serve citizens well. No argument
about that. But government simply can not be
run like a business because government by its
nature should be service-oriented, not profit-oriented.
Many of the tasks that fall to government are
by default — either that “We the people” address
societal needs that no one else wants to touch
or that having government do the task is the
best way to go about it. If we have to turn
to government for assistance in the care of
disabled loved ones, for programs for military
veterans, for programs like those at the Centers
for Disease Control, we want the emphasis to
be on service and, often, compassion and not
on reckless cost-cutting and below-par standards.
Besides, some businesses are poorly run, and
we don’t want government to be like them. Further,
perhaps businesses could learn from the way
that public servants — like Mary Maloney, the
Polk County treasurer, for example — run their
The purposes of business and government are
so disparate it is folly to have government
run like a business or vice versa. That idea,
however, feeds a second misleading notion: People
can spend their money better than government
How much will your neighbor spend on fixing
potholes down the street? What wisdom will your
neighbor bring to deciding how much to spend
on police and fire protection and where those
resources should be allocated? This delusion
makes no sense at all when it comes to shaping
We unite in government for collective decision-making.
Most of the things we spend money on individually
have little or nothing to do with our collective
lives and government spending. That’s why we
have elections and hold public officials and
employees accountable for how well government
is run; that’s why we are outraged when public
agencies waste money or don’t support essential
Consider the sentiment of Justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes, who didn’t mind paying taxes because,
“With them I buy civilization.” That makes more
sense than the delusion of letting our neighbor
decide to fix the pothole at the end of his
driveway and ignore other neighborhood needs.
Feeding the first two delusions is the complaint
that the news media are liberal. Well, yes and
no. Of course the news media are liberal if
you recognize we live in a liberal nation: What
other country in the world protects individual
rights to the extent our Constitution does?
What other country in the world allows people
to criticize government officials to the extent
we do? Much of what we are about as a nation
is still revolutionary and the envy of others.
But that’s not an end in itself — it’s an opportunity
to leave the nation in better shape than we
found it. We shoot ourselves in the foot by
opting for rhetoric over reality. Besides, when
it comes to preserving the status quo, the news
media are conservative in their outlook and
too often dedicated to telling us what we want
to hear and feeding our delusions.
There’s more to all of this, but I have to pack
for that Lake Delhi outing. CV
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator
and professor in the Drake School of Journalism
and Mass Communication and writes occasional
columns for Cityview.