Guest columnist Tim Anderson: Of snow plows and the social contract


Published: 2/28/2021 7:29:06 PM

A recent snowstorm, combined with the act of filing my taxes, reminded me of how important the social contract between government and the citizenry is.

A week ago, as I was on an early morning walk in Amherst, I saw a city-owned plow clearing the sidewalks on Main Street/Pelham Road. We all expect the town to plow streets; from the need for emergency access to business travel, it’s a given that the Town has a responsibility for clear roads.

But are sidewalks a different matter? Are they the responsibility of individual property owners? And while walking over snow is an inconvenience, a residential sidewalk is typically not the critical infrastructure a road is.

Yet, here was the Town, clearing the sidewalks, and not just on Main Street. Later on, I saw the same vehicle on College Street, and also out on Route 116. As one who walks daily, I greatly appreciate the Town taking the time to clear these sidewalks in all parts of Amherst.

The sidewalk plow remained front and center in my mind as I was filing my taxes. I, like many, consider Amherst a very nice place to live. The plowing of sidewalks just re-enforces that. It’s a service the town provides, as part of the social contract of us paying taxes. I think that’s a perspective that tends to be lacking in much of our nation today. I’m talking about the attitude of, “If it doesn’t affect me, why should I care/pay for it?”

With regards the snowplow, someone could complain. “Why is the town plowing sidewalks when my neighborhood doesn’t even have any?” Or, “I never walk; Why should I pay for someone else’s walk?”

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of examples to apply that mentality to a national level: I don’t need health care, why should I pay for someone else? I’ve got my own job, what do I care about the minimum wage? I’ve never had a problem with the police, why should I care if someone else does? It’s my body, you don’t need to tell me to wear a mask, or who I can spend my time with! I could go on, but I think you get the point.

How many of our country’s problems could be better handled if we just realized, there is more to life than our immediate selves? Just because I am not the personal beneficiary doesn’t mean it’s not important or worthwhile. I benefited on my walk from a plowed sidewalk.

A $15 federal minimum wage or land set aside for conservation in a far distant state may not have an instantly perceptible impact on my life. But if something is to benefit the greater good of our shared society, then I, as a citizen, have a duty to support it.

Make no mistake, when I file my taxes and see what I owe, I most definitely cringe. I think, deep down, most of us do. But that’s a short-lived pain that will go away. I’m sure there’s an analogy to getting the COVID vaccine when it’s your turn, somewhere in there.

As a citizen I have a responsibility to pay my taxes for the greater good of society. From plowed sidewalks in Amherst to Universal Health Care, it’s all connected. So, the next time you find yourself enjoying a public-supplied good, be it a snow-free road or an improved social safety net, remember that we, all of us, together, made it happen.

The social contract is more than just paying taxes. It’s a shared ownership in the society we are all a part of. Just think how much more we could accomplish as a country if we viewed ourselves as connected to a larger good, instead of just thinking as individuals. Sure, a new perspective can be scary. But if things are better for my neighbor, it’s hard for me to believe things won’t be better for me, as well

And to the Town of Amherst and that sidewalk plow driver, thank you. Not just for easing my walk, but for setting the example of good for all.

Tim Anderson lives in Amherst.

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