As Wisconsin residents, there are a few things all of us can agree on. We hate toll roads. We love the Packers. We think people from Illinois smell like oatmeal.
Equally as important, everybody hates government. Mention “the government” to any of your friends and watch in delight as their face crinkles up as if they just swallowed a AA battery. Even people who are normally dependent on the government for their livelihood have sour feelings about it – either their checks get there late, aren’t enough, or relegate them to a life on a “fixed income” (as opposed to the “unlimited income” most of us enjoy.) In fact, a lot of people likely don’t like government because they don’t think government is solving all their problems quickly enough.
How is it that government can be so universally reviled? Since our government is supposed to help us, why does it have a favorability rating slightly below that of arsenic?
It’s because so much of government is bad. Really bad. And that can be good.
For people who support limited government, there is no better advertisement for what government can’t do than what government currently manages not to do. The government itself has managed to accomplish what it would take a high-powered Fifth Avenue advertising agency millions of dollars to do – universally convince people of its own ineptitude.
It is this universal contempt for government that can actually provide the impetus to prevent new programs from being instituted. While it is easy to tally up the cost of current ineffective government programs, it is much more difficult to calculate the countless dollars saved by preventing bad programs from ever becoming law. While nobody likes wasting $25 million on a University of Wisconsin computer system that will never work, that money was ultimately put to good use – in convincing people how incompetent government can be.
This summer, Wisconsin Senate Democrats attempted, on short notice, to install a costly government-run universal health care program into the state budget. No doubt the Democrats thought this would be a big political winner. Yet the stink of “big government” soon reared its head, and Wisconsin citizens began to realize that their health care would soon be in the hands of the same people who run the DMV. Polls showed that the more citizens learned of the government’s involvement in the plan, the less inclined they were to support it. Bad government scores one for the taxpayers.
Furthermore, bad government often propels the need for more innovation. If the Milwaukee Public Schools had been competent in educating its schoolchildren, the Milwaukee School Choice Program would have never evolved. In essence, it took parents to learn what government couldn’t do for them before they realized what they could do for themselves.
Unfortunately, the downside of bad government is that it never goes away. Despite the general anti-government feeling among citizens, each wasteful program has its own constituency. So while the odor of big government may help prevent new programs from being instituted, it doesn’t do much to affect the programs we’re already stuck with. And when damaging programs such as welfare and forced busing are instituted, they takes decades to be undone.
Additionally, the idea of “good government” is an oxymoron. Asking government simply to to “do better” is like asking a frog to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Inefficiency is part of government DNA. Government exists solely because it doesn’t have to respond to market forces like private industry. Except when private businesses fail, they go out of business – when government fails, it pleads for more money. As a result, government doesn’t care whether you get your check on time, it doesn’t care how inconvenient it will be for you to move your house back three feet from the shoreline, and it doesn’t care that you only get a half hour for lunch to renew your driver’s license. In fact, if you take a number and have a seat, government will be right with you.
Yet it always helps that people are reminded of how poorly government works. How many times have you interacted with government at any level and left saying “yeah, those people deserve a lot more of my money?” Bad government serves as a lesson to those elected officials who are still deluded into thinking that government can solve any of our social ills. And for that, it deserves our thanks.
NOTE: A special thanks goes out to the Mount Rushmore of government ineptitude – the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. Because of you, advocates of smaller government have all the ammunition they need for decades to come.