I heard one of my fellow Americans dismiss Baltimore's set-aside of parking spaces for car-poolers as "social engineering." Carpooling is no place for government, the man said, and no one should get special privileges for sharing a ride to work. "That's social engineering," he said.
Not the first time we've heard that phrase.
"Social engineering" is a favorite of those who see Frankensteinish tinkering wherever government, the courts or science recognize a problem and dare to present remedies.
Those who decry "social engineering" prefer to let human nature take its course and market forces define American life. They are satisfied with the status quo and believe the less we deal with problems, the better. It's a kind of Idaho panhandle mentality. These folks don't have ideas of their own to offer; they just stick pitchforks into the ideas of others.
Still, as much as I've heard the "social engineering" complaint, I was surprised at its use against the enviro-frugal concept of carpooling.
The official reason for encouraging the sharing of rides to work in Baltimore appears on the city's Web site: "Our objective is to improve the quality of life and help the Baltimore Region reduce congestion and vehicle emissions, and to protect the ozone level by reducing single occupancy vehicle traffic."
This sounds not only reasonable, but critical. If government doesn't present this message, who's going to, ExxonMobil?
"By commuting with others," the Web site says, "you save time, energy, and money."
Now here's the kicker, where those who see Frankenstein in this effort probably scream, "It's alive!"
"The Department of Transportation provides priority parking for commuters who carpool and park at the metered parking lots under the Jones Falls Expressway. Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., only permit holders can park at designated meters. To apply for a permit, please call 410-396-7665."
Call me a wild-eyed radical, but I can't see where this is a bad thing, much less "social engineering."
Still, the fellow who sees the big hammy hand of government in even well-intended efforts to get people to share rides is not alone.
We have had a good 30 years of government-bashing now. No wonder that so many pitchfork-toting Americans, even in the post-9/11 world, see government as intrusive, stupid and dangerous. It also partly explains why there is such a huge disconnect between the civilian culture and military service, and why the concept of public service, once considered noble, is now considered suspect, the realm of losers, cheats or incompetents.
"Ask not what your country can do for you," John F. Kennedy said at his inauguration 45 years ago, "ask what you can do for your country."
I don't hear anyone in public life say that anymore.
With few exceptions, Democratic and Republican candidates refrain from espousing visions that are daring, dynamic or new. (Heard any lately from the candidates for governor of Maryland?) What we have in public life are men and women with plenty of ambition but few ideas - or a skittishness about expressing them.
It's cowardly or cynical, or both. The Republicans exploit issues like gay marriage and flag burning while the spineless Democrats sit on their hands in perpetual identity crisis.
Political discourse splinters into partisan bickering. Look at what's become of President Bush's fair and practical proposal for dealing with illegal immigrants and securing borders. Bush wanted to do two things: keep new illegals from entering the country and give the millions who are here a path to citizenship.
He seemed to have bipartisan support, but it didn't take long for the hard-liners to gather the pitchforks.
The most conservative members of the president's own party are using the issue to whip up their base with anti-immigrant fervor for November. And so what if they just widen a cultural divide? So what if nothing really gets done?
There's a lot of that.
What's the count on Americans without health insurance now? Forty-five million? Do you foresee any "social engineering" to resolve that problem in the next five years?
How about a national effort, something equal to a war, to develop more sources of renewable energy?
Where's the leadership among Maryland Democrats to implement, at long last, a regional attack on the concentration of poverty in Baltimore and to embrace a plan for creating more affordable housing in the region? Right along with that, how about a comprehensive, bipartisan effort to fix the school system here?
Can Democrats embrace a Republican governor's efforts to put corrections back into corrections and break the cycle of recidivism among criminal offenders? Not so far.
How about giving Smart Growth some muscle to save open space and insist on better communities as the population grows? How about a little "social engineering" to keep Maryland from becoming a sprawling mess and the Chesapeake from becoming a toilet?
Keep the faith. Someone is going to come along, probably in the next generation of Americans, and speak again in these high-minded and idealistic terms. You'll know it when you hear it. This will be a person whose ambitions have more to do with public good than personal agenda, someone impatient for change, someone who demands sacrifice and service from more of his fellow Americans. Someone unafraid of the people with pitchforks.
To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.