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Thank Big Government for the Toilet

David Callahan

Today is World Toilet Day, which strikes me as a good moment to reflect on how government can radically improve people's daily lives. Let's skip the long history of modern waterworks and sanitation -- and the state's all-important role in such things from the Roman era onward -- to instead consider how modern liberalism brought the toilet to rural America recently enough that plenty of older people still remember using outhouses. 

Here's how the story goes. Back in the 1930s, most rural parts of the United States didn't have indoor plumbing -- decades after this was standard in cities. Why? Because rural areas didn't have electricity, and without power, there was no way to pull water up from wells and pump it through homes. Electrifying rural communities was no easy thing, because it simply wasn't profitable for power companies to serve these far-flung places, where power lines out to a single farm home might stretch for miles. 

In short, the free market couldn't solve the problem of how to bring rural America into the 20th century. One 1925 study found that only 205,000 farms out of 6.3 million had access to centralized electrical service. No power meant left millions of people in the wealthiest country in the world using outhouses. 

Then the New Deal came along. FDR created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, and it became one of this greatest successes. The REA provided government-backed loans to cooperatives that built power infrastructure -- a great example of leveraging public resources without having government do everything. Within just four years, 25 percent of rural homes had electrification. By 1942, 50 percent of home did. 

And with electricity, of course, came the toilet.

By the 1960s, most rural homes had electricity and indoor plumbing, but even then the job wasn't done. Some deeply poor parts of Appalachia and the Deep South had been bypassed by electrification -- as Robert F. Kennedy memorably highlighted during his 1968 tour of Appalachia. As part of the War on Poverty, government stepped its efforts to complete the electrification of rural America, a push that even through the 1990s entailed clashes with conservatives in states like Kentucky who didn't want to compel power companies to serve poor rural areas. 

This history raises an unsettling question: If rural Americans have big government to thank for electricity and indoor plumbing, why do these folks hate government so much? According to exit polls from the 2012 election, the vast majority of rural voters went for Romney. I should add that many of these same places are heavily dependent on government safety net benefits. Rural America will also disproportionately benefit from the healthcare subsidies under Obamacare financed, in part, by a Medicare surcharge tax on wealthy people who mostly live in urban areas.

One explanation here is that people just don't see and appreciate crucial public goods, like rural electricity. As June Sekera has been writing in this space, the key ways that government improves life often goes unnoticed and the advocates of government tend to do a poor job of the drawing attention to public goods.

It's easy, in situations like this, to bemoan the primitive nature of American politics -- especially the maddening ways people vote against their own self-interest. But today's a good day to keep perspective here: Nearly all Americans now have access to a toilet, whereas 40 percent of people in the rest of the world do not. And the consequences are mind numbing. For example, it's been estimated that young girls worldwide spend 96 billion hours a year looking for a safe and private place to go the bathroom. Often they risk rape and other violence as part of this search. 

Yes, the U.S. is backwards in ways. But at least our daughters don't dread relieving themselves.