The crisis in Flint reveals the dangerous downside of treating public safety as just another line item.

Photo: theilr/Flickr

Of all the sordid details to emerge from the crisis in Flint—the offensive and dismissive emails exchanged by state officials; the fact that a local General Motors factory refused to wash its engine parts with the same corrosive water that residents were being told was safe to drink; the importing of bottled water for state employees who knew the truth, even as they worked to conceal it from locals—one point hasn’t been discussed as much as it deserves to be.

The initial decision to switch Flint’s municipal water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, without putting the proper anti-corrosive additives into the new water supply, was a textbook example of penny-pinching “small government” in action. The worst American water crisis of this century, and one of the most deplorably cynical failures of governance in recent memory, took place because an emergency manager—appointed to the position by Michigan’s Republican governor, and answering to state officials rather than to the citizens who were being directly affected by his decisions—was looking to cut costs. And he either didn’t know or wasn’t sufficiently bothered by the fact that cutting costs in this instance also meant cutting corners on water safety.

The presidential campaign season is always a good time for considering the impacts of political philosophy on the actual, nuts-and-bolts practice of governing. And in the wake of Flint, it’s definitely worth looking at how our markedly different ideas about regulation, oversight, and spending priorities—ideas at the heart of some of our fiercest political fights—are likely to play out in the arena of real life.

Marc Edwards is the Virginia Tech professor whose team of water-testing researchers and graduate students confirmed the dangerous lead levels in Flint. On more than one occasion, Edwards has asserted that a dangerously lackadaisical approach to regulatory compliance on the part of state officials, combined with their desire to save money, is what led to the current crisis. According to Edwards, had these same officials simply “followed the minimum requirements under federal law,” then “none of this would have happened.” He has also noted that the cost of correcting the problem at the outset, by putting certain additives into the water, would have been about $100 a day—an amount of money that the state was, apparently, loath to spend.

Many people, upon learning this, rightly wonder: How? If the one irreducible responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens, how could officials in Michigan have failed so spectacularly at carrying out this most basic task?

The final answer to that question will be revealed in due course, as investigations continue and litigation proceeds. In the meantime, it’s hard not to see Flint as the inevitable by-product of a small-government ethos run amok, one that fetishizes cost savings—too often mischaracterized as “efficiency”—at the expense of the commonweal. As The Washington Post’s Janell Ross put it, “[T]he situation in Flint highlights the very real limits of reducing both the size and cost of government at every turn, of making savings the organizing principle of government. Money truly is not everything, even in a poor city in one of the richest countries in the world. When it is, the crisis in Flint is one possible result.”

In the 1980s, around the time of Ronald Reagan’s reelection, a curious trope began coursing through the halls of right-of-center think tanks in Washington, D.C.: “Starve the beast.” The beast, in the eyes of many of that era’s conservatives, was government spending; the way to “starve” it, they believed, was to lower taxes to such an extent that entitlement programs would wither and die on the vine, thus greatly reducing the size—and cost—of the federal bureaucracy.

As a targeted strategy aimed at shrinking the size of the federal government, “Starve the beast” met with mixed success: We still have entitlement programs (like Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare) that it was designed to weaken and kill. But as a philosophical construct, the idea resonated and reverberated throughout conservatism at all levels, eventually becoming a cornerstone of GOP platforms and governance. As Ross notes, ever since Reagan famously quipped during his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” we’ve had to deal with this plain fact: Many Americans view the same government tasked with keeping people safe from all kinds of harm—from foreign invaders to tainted water—as “a purely villainous force.”

As a critique of an ever-expanding federal bureaucracy, that’s one thing. But as a modus operandi for running a country, a state, or a city, it’s quite another. And as we’ve seen on more than one occasion, it can have devastating consequences.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder has so far proved himself to be more moderate than many on the far right would probably like him to be; in acknowledgement of the many economic difficulties facing his state, he has fought with Republicans as well as Democrats over state spending. But that fact only underscores the degree to which the absurdly self-negating “cut costs at all costs” philosophy has permeated our political culture. The emergency-manager appointee in Flint, and the state officials to whom he reported, didn’t need to be told to opt for the cheapest solution. They knew to do so as a matter of political instinct.

Liberals and conservatives can argue over the price tag of this or that program, project, or regulation until they are—respectively—blue or red in the face. But the one thing that all Americans should be able to agree on is that the public’s access to safe drinking water is worth whatever taxpayer funds are required to secure it. Surely it’s worth at least $100 a day.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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