Photo by autowitchYou’re all familiar with Grover Norquist’s signature quote, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  Conservative politicians don’t necessarily live by it, but it’s nevertheless part of the central core of their gospel.

As the recession drags on, and as anti-tax Republicans continue to hold sway over the lower levels of government, more and more states and municipalities are discovering that Norquist’s dream is more like a nightmare.

What does bathtub-size government look like?  It looks like Colorado Springs:

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.  Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.

That is Bathtub America.  It’s not a vibrant hub of unshackled free enterprise.  It’s not an Ayn Randian utopia, where John Galts and Howard Roarks bestride the earth.  It’s dirty, dysfunctional, diseased, and dying.  And it’s spreading.

In Minnesota, where infrastructure underfunding has already caused a bridge collapse, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty is trying to misuse emergency “unallotment” powers to slash $2.7 billion from “health and human services programs, aid to local governments, and higher education,” and fellow Republican Chris Christie is looking to do the same in New Jersey.  California’s once-great educational system is now a shambles because the legislature’s two-thirds majority requirement makes tax increases impossible… and other states are following it down the drain.

It’s not as bad at the federal level, but years of Republican and centrist governance have crippled our regulatory agencies and neglected our parks and infrastructure, and conservatives won’t be satisfied until they’ve privatized Social Security and replaced Medicare with vouchers.

The mantra of tax cuts and small government is all well and good if you share the conservatives’ cartoon vision of government as a pushy scold that encourages first-graders to have sex, gives your hard-earned money to sacrilegious artists, snail researchers, ineffectual paper-pushing bureaucrats, welfare queens and OMG ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS OMG, and sends black-ops hit squads to disarm patriotic gun-owners and send them to top-secret FEMA camps (oddly, military spending is a-okay), but that view is wildly distorted.

The most important thing the government does is keep everything running.  You may not notice it because it’s operating quietly in the background (much like zinc oxide!), but it’s what prevents society from breaking down into chaos and disrepair, and it’s what provides the educational foundation for the people who will be running this country 20 or 30 years from now.

Starving the government because you don’t like everything it does is like starving your body because you’re pissed off about a hangnail, and then using your inevitable decline as proof that your body sucks and doesn’t deserve to be fed.  And then insisting that you’re better off using the money you saved on food to pay for some nice efficient life-support machines to take care of you instead.

Don’t like taxes or government?  Go to Somalia, or the wilds of Afghanistan, or Colorado Springs, and try living without it for a while.  Just don’t force the rest of us to come along and play Lord Of The Flies with you.