Good Government: is There Such a Thing?

Here are three examples of failures of government in its most fundamental role, ensuring public order and safety: 

  • In New Mexico, the new “bad guys” on illegal immigration are state residents who stopped undocumented people crossing over from Mexico.  The ACLU calls it unlawful detainment, the governor wants an investigation, the residents just want government to do its job. 
  • In Los Angeles, Metro Division cops were maligned as racists, patrols were scaled back, and crime predictably increased after a newspaper story revealed that minorities were pulled over more often than whites.  It did not matter that this was happening in predominantly minority neighborhoods or that the LA Times concluded that there was no racial profiling. 
  • In Florida, state officials have responded to in-school bullying by offering 'scholarships' so victimized students can transfer to safer schools.  The bullies, meanwhile, are ignored, free to find new victims.

When the rules governing a civil society start to fray or are selectively enforced, and when the intentions of grandiose ideas outweigh their results, public faith in institutions can only erode.  The combination of bad service funneled through a sclerotic delivery system by virtually unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats has created an increasingly apathetic public.  The disconnect between government and the governed is severe enough that nearly half of registered voters sat out the 2016 election, and barely 15% vote in municipal races.          

In a previous professional life, I spent the better part of 15 years as a government reporter -- going to meetings, talking to department heads and elected officials, and covering the impact of policy decisions.  There is no small number of dedicated professionals in public administration who understand that they are spending other people's money and that doing so comes with a responsibility.  It’s what a city manager I knew called ‘good government,’ meaning making wise and efficient use of scarce resources.  

We can debate what government in a free society should look like, but three fundamental questions must be asked and one principle has to be considered before any initiative is launched: 

1) Is the idea being considered something that needs to be done?  Proposals are often no more than personal hobby horses with limited external value.  This is as simple a SWOT analysis.  If there is no critical mass of concern, then move on to something else.  If a nonprofit or other agency is involved in the issue, don't gum up the works by injecting politics.  Even better, non-profits are typically funded by people who believe in the cause, voluntary cooperation is a far more efficient tool than coercion.

2) Is this a subject government has experience in and understands?  Subject matter expertise is no small concern.  Health care is the easiest example where people wholly untrained in an area want as much control of it as possible.  When the administrator of Medicare says that "Medicare for All” is unworkable, perhaps she knows something that others don’t.   

3) What will success look like?  Or failure, for that matter.  There is a stubborn desire to hang on to ideas long past their expiration date.  That’s how the nation's richest state is a fiscal train wreck.  You can probably count on one hand the number of government agencies, initiatives, and programs that have been terminated.  More likely, you'll find that each has grown in scope and cost. 

No government action occurs in a vacuum.  Just as taxing an activity tends to discourage it, subsidizing an activity invariably leads to more of it.  This certainly applies to the three examples at the top, each to the detriment of most citizens.

We are purposely omitting the question of money because it is secondary to those regarding appropriateness and effectiveness.  If Apple were to announce a line of cars, you might well laugh.  Stay in your lane, bro; you're a technology innovator, not an auto maker.  Same with McDonald's announcing the launch of a clothing line.  It’s counterintuitive.  When an organization is ill-equipped to take on a function, budgeting is a nonissue.  But the organization must have the self-awareness to realize its own limitations, and too often, the public sector is driven by a “do something” ethos, as if activity is a plausible substitute for action. 

This mentality shows no signs of abating in the coming election cycle:

  • One candidate sees no problem with forcing one person to pay for another's debt
  • A second, a lawyer who presumably know better, wants to subject individual rights to executive order
  • All Democratic candidates apparently face, as a litmus test, the question of can man control climate, with only one answer seen as acceptable.

A good part of the onus, of course, rests with us.  Representatives don't elect themselves.  What should citizens reasonably expect in services and their quality?  When does the taxpayer demand to be treated for the customer that he/she is?  This is “the consent of the governed."  At least it’s supposed to be.  It looks so nice on paper, doesn't it?  In practice, government at all levels accounts for nearly 40% of GDP.  That means the 60% of people in the productive class are underwriting the whole enterprise.     

Customer dissatisfaction with the decisions make in their name is evident in New Mexico, where citizens felt forced to do what government won't.  In Los Angeles, fewer patrols resulted in more homicides and shootings; how long before innocents demand that City Hall be less concerned about PC and more focused "protect and serve?"  And the irony of ironies in Florida, where bullies are enabled by the very people entrusted with ensuring safety.

Here are three examples of failures of government in its most fundamental role, ensuring public order and safety: 

  • In New Mexico, the new “bad guys” on illegal immigration are state residents who stopped undocumented people crossing over from Mexico.  The ACLU calls it unlawful detainment, the governor wants an investigation, the residents just want government to do its job. 
  • In Los Angeles, Metro Division cops were maligned as racists, patrols were scaled back, and crime predictably increased after a newspaper story revealed that minorities were pulled over more often than whites.  It did not matter that this was happening in predominantly minority neighborhoods or that the LA Times concluded that there was no racial profiling. 
  • In Florida, state officials have responded to in-school bullying by offering 'scholarships' so victimized students can transfer to safer schools.  The bullies, meanwhile, are ignored, free to find new victims.

When the rules governing a civil society start to fray or are selectively enforced, and when the intentions of grandiose ideas outweigh their results, public faith in institutions can only erode.  The combination of bad service funneled through a sclerotic delivery system by virtually unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats has created an increasingly apathetic public.  The disconnect between government and the governed is severe enough that nearly half of registered voters sat out the 2016 election, and barely 15% vote in municipal races.          

In a previous professional life, I spent the better part of 15 years as a government reporter -- going to meetings, talking to department heads and elected officials, and covering the impact of policy decisions.  There is no small number of dedicated professionals in public administration who understand that they are spending other people's money and that doing so comes with a responsibility.  It’s what a city manager I knew called ‘good government,’ meaning making wise and efficient use of scarce resources.  

We can debate what government in a free society should look like, but three fundamental questions must be asked and one principle has to be considered before any initiative is launched: 

1) Is the idea being considered something that needs to be done?  Proposals are often no more than personal hobby horses with limited external value.  This is as simple a SWOT analysis.  If there is no critical mass of concern, then move on to something else.  If a nonprofit or other agency is involved in the issue, don't gum up the works by injecting politics.  Even better, non-profits are typically funded by people who believe in the cause, voluntary cooperation is a far more efficient tool than coercion.

2) Is this a subject government has experience in and understands?  Subject matter expertise is no small concern.  Health care is the easiest example where people wholly untrained in an area want as much control of it as possible.  When the administrator of Medicare says that "Medicare for All” is unworkable, perhaps she knows something that others don’t.   

3) What will success look like?  Or failure, for that matter.  There is a stubborn desire to hang on to ideas long past their expiration date.  That’s how the nation's richest state is a fiscal train wreck.  You can probably count on one hand the number of government agencies, initiatives, and programs that have been terminated.  More likely, you'll find that each has grown in scope and cost. 

No government action occurs in a vacuum.  Just as taxing an activity tends to discourage it, subsidizing an activity invariably leads to more of it.  This certainly applies to the three examples at the top, each to the detriment of most citizens.

We are purposely omitting the question of money because it is secondary to those regarding appropriateness and effectiveness.  If Apple were to announce a line of cars, you might well laugh.  Stay in your lane, bro; you're a technology innovator, not an auto maker.  Same with McDonald's announcing the launch of a clothing line.  It’s counterintuitive.  When an organization is ill-equipped to take on a function, budgeting is a nonissue.  But the organization must have the self-awareness to realize its own limitations, and too often, the public sector is driven by a “do something” ethos, as if activity is a plausible substitute for action. 

This mentality shows no signs of abating in the coming election cycle:

  • One candidate sees no problem with forcing one person to pay for another's debt
  • A second, a lawyer who presumably know better, wants to subject individual rights to executive order
  • All Democratic candidates apparently face, as a litmus test, the question of can man control climate, with only one answer seen as acceptable.

A good part of the onus, of course, rests with us.  Representatives don't elect themselves.  What should citizens reasonably expect in services and their quality?  When does the taxpayer demand to be treated for the customer that he/she is?  This is “the consent of the governed."  At least it’s supposed to be.  It looks so nice on paper, doesn't it?  In practice, government at all levels accounts for nearly 40% of GDP.  That means the 60% of people in the productive class are underwriting the whole enterprise.     

Customer dissatisfaction with the decisions make in their name is evident in New Mexico, where citizens felt forced to do what government won't.  In Los Angeles, fewer patrols resulted in more homicides and shootings; how long before innocents demand that City Hall be less concerned about PC and more focused "protect and serve?"  And the irony of ironies in Florida, where bullies are enabled by the very people entrusted with ensuring safety.