Friday, August 27, 2010

Democracy and the DMV

In a post titled, How the DMV Undermines Democracy, Keith Humphreys has just lowered the bar for critical thought at the Reality Based Community.  In a lengthy diatribe on his recent experiences at a California DMV, his thesis is that government inefficiencies play right into the hands of the Tea Party movement, specifically the guy protesting at his local DMV.

Like most DMVs around the country, this one set its weekly hours to correspond with the times when most Americans are at work and cannot go to the DMV. As a small concession to serving those whose taxes pay for the DMV to exist in the first place, this office was open on Saturday mornings from 8am to noon. I arrived at 7:30am to avoid a line. Too late: it already snaked back a hundred feet and around one corner of the building. By the time 8am rolled around, it wrapped back several hundred yards until people were standing next to, you guessed it, the protestor, who got a receptive audience as he railed at the government.

The DMV is the perfect place to demonstrate the incompetence of many public services, and to instill completely justifiable rage on the part of taxpayers. Almost every single person interacts with it each year, and therefore almost every single person is treated like garbage rather than what they are: The owner and employer of the DMV.

This is hands down the worst posting I’ve seen at the RBC. It is filled with absurd claims, anecdotal evidence, generalizations, false equivalencies, and exaggerations. I completely agree that government services can often be poorly implemented, and sometimes more so because of inherent structural problems that inevitably lead to more bureaucracy. But it is just as true that government provides services that the private sector simply will never be able to, that bureaucracy also exists in the private sector, and that government often times does a wonderful job providing services (even, as others have pointed out, and I can also personally attest – at DMVs).

Yet what I find most offensive is the suggestion that poor performance by government is an existential indictment of government. No, it is an indictment of poor performance. Just as poor performance by the private sector is not an indictment of the private sector but an indictment of  poor performance. The only time the two should be existentially compared is when one might be able to provide a better service than the other. Yet remember, most services the government provides are those that must be provided to all citizens equally. And because, unlike the private sector, you seldom have the opportunity to vote with your feet by taking your business elsewhere, the remedy requires an extra level of active citizenship in the form of writing letters, filling out evaluation paperwork, voting in elections, etc.

Of course this may or may not work, but it is the only reasonable option. On the plus side, there is an actual democratic mechanism to government, unlike the private sector. There are countless areas of the market in which there is just no good mechanism for holding the business accountable, save from starting your own.  For better or worse, government is about fulfilling a promise we make to the citizenry.  We can do a poor job of it, but that doesn't mean the promise should not be made.  It only means we need to find ways to doing our job better.

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