The public sector: Standing in our way until we pay up

On Friday, I had a “one of those days” morning: A completely flat tire thanks to an errant construction fastener of some sort and a cell phone that had suddenly quit functioning. It turned out to be one of those days during which market-based services really shone: I dropped the dead wheel off at Discount Tire and drove to the Apple store on my spare, and in an hour or so both things were fixed for a total cost of $0.00. Compare that with my recent experience transferring a driver’s license from one state to another a few months back: As such episodes, go, this one wasn’t terrible, but it still took nine hours, required several forms of documentation rarely used anywhere else, and (including the new registration) cost as much as the monthly payment on a modest car. To what end? What public good was being provided? None, so far as I can see: It is not as though there was some kind of examination to make sure that I am a good driver or otherwise capable — the local DMV was more than willing to take the state of New York’s word for that; New York had in turn taken the word of Connecticut, which took it from Virginia, which . . . you get the picture. There was nothing about the transfer process that couldn’t have been done at an ATM, but I was obliged to justify myself to three different clerks and to spend a non-trivial sum of money…

If you ever have started a business, you are more than a little familiar with the armed-middleman business model, with 70 or 80 percent of your compliance challenges being composed of things that you have to comply with for the sake of complying with them. I always enjoyed putting up those OSHA posters featuring men in hardhats and shovels in my newspaper offices, where the most likely injury was carpel-tunnel injury or possible hearing damage when I started yelling at you around deadline time. I once put the question to a young, idealistic liberal Democratic budget guy in the employ of the city of Philadelphia: “What share of city workers actually does something useful?” His estimate was about 1 in 10, excluding police, firemen, and teachers — but, considering the number of police officers whose full-time job is administrative work at the Police Athletic League, you might want to qualify that further still.

When it comes to government, if you aren’t involved in the provision of actual public goods, you are involved in extortion.