Sunday, May 2, was a lovely day for the National Arboretum to refresh its many visitors. Situated on 444 acres in the Mount Hamilton section of the District of Columbia, the arboretum was alive with azaleas, flowering dogwood, mountain laurel and the expansive blooms of the elephant-ear magnolia. The fresh scents of these blossoms wafted their way across the little roads and walkways not overly crowded with Americans and foreign travelers.
The arboretum was established by an act of Congress in 1927–by our government. It is administered by the secretary of agriculture. This land is for educating people and conducting research on many varieties of trees, shrubs and herbs. There is no user fee for visitors–not yet anyway. The arboretum occupies land designed for a community purpose, enlightened by a community intelligence. Set in the middle of a capital of asphalt, concrete, cement and rows of buildings, these acres represent the lungs of the capital.
It could have been otherwise. Those years in the ’20s could have been Reagan-type years instead of the Coolidge era. Cries could have prevailed to use the gently rolling land for millionaires’ housing, as the few remaining open spaces now are being employed in the District. Or perhaps developers would have expanded their warehouses and shopping malls and parking lots into the area. Criticism could have been leveled at the proposed arboretum as not being productive for the economy or, in a phrase, not cost-beneficial. Didn’t our current president say years ago about California redwoods, “You see one, you see them all”? Against such a measure, what chance would the arboretum’s ferns, white pines, hemlocks, oaks, beech and tulip trees have?
The arboretum is beyond reach of the developers, Reaganites and libertarians because it is a living sense of the community, not an ungrasped vision of the future. Developers, Reaganites and libertarians do not cavil at this product of a governmental intelligence; they enjoy the flowers, lawns and cultivated displays of bonsai, irises and rhododendrons like anyone else. It is reality, not ideology that prevails here.
Is there not here a modest lesson as well?
Suppose people, who pigeonhole themselves into ideological cubbyholes, let their experience more often guide their attitudes for general policy. Members of Congress who rail against government and generic drugs routinely applaud the services of Walter Reed Army Hospital or Bethesda Naval Hospital which dispense generic drugs (because they are as good but much cheaper than their chemical-equivalent, brand-name drugs). Businessmen who rage against consumer protection measures are among the most articulate complaint writers to us when they buy lemon Cadillacs or Lincolns or Mercedes. “Why can’t something be done about all these outrages that we consumers have to put up with,” said one of these letter-writers–a president of a chemical company.
The Reagan administration wants to start selling off the public lands, to allow more pollution to build up in park land and wilderness areas, and to charge higher user fees for FBI, Coast Guard and other general governmental services. National “community services” are being broken down into individual user charges for even more limited services–allegedly to save money.
This atomization extends now to citizens who want to receive press releases from government agencies but now have to pay to find out what their government is doing. Taxpayers who paid for the service in the first place then are charged extra because they use them in the second place. But tens of billions of dollars of yearly corporate subsidies from taxpayers continue to go unchallenged by those same Reagan administration officials.
It is time to restore a sense of “our government” instead of an antipathy to “the government.” For if we believe in our democracy, we cannot escape responsibility for unworkable or wasteful government. If we do not like what we see in Washington or state capitals, perhaps we are looking into the mirror of our neglect of citizenship duties to effectively carve our ideas into our government. As our society becomes ever more complex and interdependent, we must work together as communities–local, state and national. A return to Social Darwinism and laws of the jungle would find in practice a great deal of opposition from people who now call themselves conservatives. Perhaps preaching what people actually practice will dilute spurious and abstract ideological antagonisms. The beautiful arboretum and its patrons are not an isolated enclave in this respect.