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In a relentless drive to reduce costs, government failed the people of Flint

For a lesson in the importance of good government, consider the disaster in Flint, Mich. In an extraordinarily poor city, residents have been poisoned by lead that leached into their water supply after careless municipal decision-making followed by a lack of concern, to say the least, in state government.

The lesson here is this: Government matters. Those who insist that all government is bad and that the primary task of elected officials is to spend less need to understand that Flint is a reality check. The reckless effort to reduce the costs of water in a community in financial crisis has directly caused extreme health hazards and, in fact, raised the costs of one of government’s most fundamental obligations: protecting the public health.

Flint was in financial trouble for years before the water disaster. Its operations were already under the control of an emergency manager, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder. The city had been getting its water from the nearby Detroit system, but joined with others in a project to take water from Lake Huron.

In the meantime, to cut costs, in 2014 Flint began taking its water from the Flint River. The water was so caustic that it corroded water pipes, which leached lead into water used to cook, drink and wash.

Worse, for months, both the city and state falsely denied that there were any problems with the water, exposing adults and children to the disastrous consequences of lead poisoning. Lead attacks the central nervous system and, in children, risks long-term brain damage. It’s a severe penalty, paid by people without political or economic power, for politicians’ slavish devotion to cost-cutting.

The city is now getting its water from Detroit, but the damage to the pipes has been done. Replacing them will likely be necessary, at an estimated cost of up to $1.5 billion. And all it would have taken to avoid this calamity was a commitment to a careful process in changing the water supply. Such care would have led to a decision to add chemicals to the Flint River water that would have prevented the water from corroding pipes.

That’s not an argument for overspending, a phenomenon with which New Yorkers are intimately familiar. Government has an obligation to tax fairly and use those dollars wisely. Michigan, manifestly, did not do that. It was careless in a way that has drawn the attention of the state’s attorney general, who has opened an investigation into the issue.

The lesson here is to resist the siren call to reduce spending at all costs. Governments are too often lax in carrying out their responsibilities. They are giant bureaucracies that can be enormously wasteful and bear close watching for that.

But they serve some critical functions, and few of those can be more important than public health. Indeed, sanitation and water purity are probably the best examples of how government has made life better and safer for people around the planet.

In Flint, government made life worse by failing to do its job. That should have included spending enough money to ensure that the people of the beleaguered city weren’t poisoned by the water they need to live.