The Post has a story today about how local governments are trying to decide whether in a time of budget crisis they ought to keep the kinds of small programs that build “quality of life.” When Fairfax County cuts a $22 million affordable housing program, how can it justify spending on neighborhood concerts, even if those concerts only cost around $70,000?
These programs should absolutely be kept, though the reason why is obscured by the Post’s framing. If these programs are about quality of life, then there’s no reason that the private sector can’t organize them. Take one example from the article: Fairfax Supervisor Michael Frey’s office runs a drive-in movie series every summer. Screening movies is exactly the kind of good that the market could, and does, provide.
But, you might protest, I love Screen on the Green! I was so horrified when they canceled it! Look how happy DCists commenters were when it was saved (and even note the word choice of “saved” that was used everywhere).
What’s going on is that these events are not about “quality of life” in terms of concrete provision of goods or services. These kinds of events are valuable only because they are about building local community, real or imagined. In some places, these events are at the local enough level that you see the neighbors you know and the ones that you should get to know in a friendly environment. In something like Screen on the Green, you build an imagined community for the District through the shared experience, even though it’s not like you really get to know anyone new. But it’s not about the concert or the movie itself; it’s the bringing people together.
Building these communities is important. Community cohesion is important for keeping down crime, for fostering local businesses, for all sorts of things. Intuitively, I think everyone knows that when you walk into a vibrant community, as opposed to just a neighborhood, you know instantly it’s a place you want to be. For $70,000, investing in community is going to yield you the biggest returns of just about any program you could name.