Montana Viewpoint

April 30, 2005

Every so often I’ll be working at my desk in the Senate Chamber and look up to see people standing at the doorway, cautiously peering through the glass. That’s when I get to do something that never fails to give me a thrill; I get up, open the door, and say, “Come on in folks, you own this place!”

And that’s when I get to see an expression of pride and delight bloom on their faces as they look at the majestic trappings of the room I’m lucky enough to call my office and recognize,“Yeah, we do, don’t we?”

Yeah, we do. That grand symbol of our aspirations and accomplishments that is our Capitol is jointly owned by each and every Montanan: the dramatic space under the rotunda; the grand staircase; the huge Charley Russell painting in the House of Representatives; the carpet I walk on and the chair I sit in are community property, and don’t you forget it!

It is an awe-inspiring place, and rightly so, because it represents something that is greater than just the sum of all Montanans: it represents the gift of hope and opportunity and unity of purpose that have been bought and paid for by hard work, sacrifice, and taxes. Yes, taxes, because that hope and opportunity does not come free for the taking. If we want to share in the benefits, we have to share in the cost.

Mostly we take for granted what we have in America, and if we do think about the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” we can have here, we seldom think of what it cost new or the cost of the upkeep; but all those things we value most were and are eventually paid for by taxes.

The Revolutionary War and all the other wars that kept us a free nation cost money, and so did the institutions that allow us to grow and prosper. When we’re lucky enough to be born in America, we fall into an inheritance already purchased by our forbearers, and it’s our responsibility to maintain it so we can, in turn, pass it on to future generations.

Even those of us who say “nobody ever gave me nothin’,” or who claim they achieved economic successes “on my own” start out life one heck of a lot better than most of the world’s people. We are born into a nation that has security and order, created and regulated by men and women imbued with a sense of justice and fairness. That gives us a financial system that doesn’t condone unscrupulous actions, a justice system that guarantees equal treatment for everyone, a transportation system that allows uniform delivery of food and products, and on and on. Paid for by taxes and maintained by taxes.

It’s often hard to remember that those intangibles we are blessed with; the stability, safety, and health didn’t just magically appear. And as individual and independent as we are, we are committed to keeping what we’ve got, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

I feel that the reason we tend to take all this for granted is because those of us born after 1945 have had it pretty easy. Our parents or grandparents didn’t. They had to face the enormous hardships and deprivation of the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II. But because they suffered together, they triumphed together, and created an America that shared the common goal of a better life for everyone.

The generation of Americans who lived through all this is almost gone, and I fear that their sacrifice and their lessons learned will be lost to our national memory. We need to remember that what we enjoy in America today is a gift from our forebears; dutifully bought and paid for by their work and taxes so that we, their descendants, might prosper. It’s up to us to pass it on.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620