In the third chapter of The New History in an Old Museum there was discussion of tour guides’ presentation of the two halves of Colonial Williamsburg (the foundation and the for-profit side), a corporate and PR schizophrenia that provided the authors interesting fodder. It’s telling, beyond the borders of Colonial Williamsburg, that emphasis was placed on the fact that the foundation was supported by private money rather than the government. On the one hand, yes, good to assure the public that a not-for-profit venture isn’t being used to siphon public monies into the coffer of a privately owned business. But on the other hand, it de-emphasizes the importance of an educational mission and the role of government. It would be somehow reproachable to have government underwriting an institution with an educational mission, a waste of taxpayers’ money. Only a private corporation—and a very successful one at that—could (or should) be willing to sink money into such an effort.

By these metrics, the public is entitled to see that their tax money is unspent, not that it is well spent. Leaving aside the personal priorities that dictate what an individual considers “good” or “bad” public spending, it’s still a curious effect. In a capitalistic society, which in so many ways offers incentives for individuals to invest their money (and disincentives for saving*), there’s a certain degree of cognitive dissonance to see the assumption that government investment will be seen as a negative.

* Cf. the latest round of “historically low” mortgages rates and the uninspiring rates offered for CDs.