Government Sucks – Part 2

In Part 1 of my Government Sucks series, I pointed out that my former employer, the Town of Oyster Bay (aka the Town), doesn’t do right by its customers (i.e., the taxpayers). The Town, to put it bluntly, stinks. It provides crummy service and charges a fortune for it.

So how does the Town get away with such blatant disrespect for its customers?

Because it can. After all, what can the taxpayers do? Fire the Town and hire another municipality to fix potholes, pick up garbage, and maintain the community’s parks?

The sad truth is that the Town’s taxpayers are stuck. They have to surrender a chunk of their wealth every year to the Town whether the Town provides good service, bad service, or no service.

Yes, the taxpayers can register their disgust with the Town’s service by voting out the party in power. And if the newly elected party is committed to excellence rather than the malign quid pro quo discussed in Part 1, the quality of the Town’s service might improve. But there’s no guarantee. The new guys and gals will need a lot of help. In order to fire the dead wood and reduce labor costs, for instance, they’ll need the state to enact major pension and civil service reforms. And until the state does that, their hands will be tied.

This isn’t meant to imply that voting is useless. Voting the right people into office can bring about positive changes. But voting is not as powerful a check on lousy government as many suppose. Heck, we’ve been voting for “education” candidates for as long as I can remember and our public schools are still much better at sucking up tax dollars and making excuses than at educating our kids.

But what if taxpayers could vote with dollars rather than ballots? What if taxpayers could withhold their tax dollars until the government got its act together? Would government suddenly become more responsive to the needs and wants of the taxpayers?

Almost certainly. For nothing concentrates the mind like the real threat of losing one’s livelihood (thank you, Samuel Johnson).

Private businesses know this all too well. When they screw up, they lose customers. And if they keep screwing up, they go out of business.

Not government. Bad service doesn’t translate into an immediate loss of customers and falling revenues. Bad service, more often than not, actually becomes a rallying cry in some quarters for even higher taxes. (Just why some people think more taxes is the answer to what ails government is fodder for another post. It does bring to mind, though, the below clip from the movie Animal House.)

Here, then, is the second takeaway from my Government Sucks series.

Reason # 2 why government sucks: Government has mandated customers and can’t go out of business if it provides crummy service

Final Thoughts

Government employees don’t start their careers as being intentionally indifferent to the needs of the taxpayers. They gradually become that way, though, because they work for an organization that doesn’t face competition.

The best analogy I can think of is a long-term relationship. When I first started dating Mrs. Groovy, I was exceedingly gallant, pleasant, and considerate. I had to be. If I were a jerk, she would have dumped me and checked out the competition. But over time, once our love blossomed and we got married (goodbye competition!), my hero muscles began to atrophy. I wasn’t as gallant, pleasant, and considerate as I once was. I was still a good guy, and far from being a jerk, but I was decidedly less romantic.

Fortunately for Mrs. Groovy (and me), I eventually realized that the absence of competition wasn’t an excuse to let my hero muscles go. I now try to treat Mrs. Groovy like we were first dating. I’m not always successful, but I’m a much better husband now than I was five or ten years ago.

The problem with government is that it hasn’t developed the internal checks necessary to overcome the indifference toward customers that monopoly breeds. Later in this series, I’ll suggest some ways to incorporate those internal checks. In the meantime, though, government will remain indifferent to the needs of the taxpayers. Its errors and mistakes will linger long after they’re discovered. Its outdated business models will take decades if not generations to purge.

Not fun and not encouraging. But perhaps it’s a comfort to know that government indifference isn’t personal.

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