Monday, August 12, 2013

Can Government Be More Efficient?

In my last post, I mused about the role of Howard Jarvis in the taxpayer revolt of the late 1970s and 1980s.  I expressed the opinion that Jarvis had been too quick to believe that government was flawed and had failed to consider another explanation for the increasing tax burden of his time.  The other explanation was the excessive costs associated with our post-World War II approach to land use.

Although I believe that Jarvis was blind to the underlying reasons for the growth of government, it’s still fair to ask whether he was correct that government can be more efficient.

The answer is yes.  Government can be more efficient.  Not only in implementing a land-use approach that requires fewer resources, but also in the day-to-day conduct of its affairs.

But it’s not only government that can be more efficient.  Individuals and businesses can also be more efficient.  Indeed, the harping on “governmental waste” is much like living in a glass house and throwing stones.

Do you doubt me?  Do you have recreational equipment in your garage that have you haven’t used in years?  How about exercise equipment in your spare room that you haven’t touched since January 2?  Or perhaps a sewing machine that is gathering dust?  Or have you thrown away food that gathered mold in the back of your refrigerator because you forgot it was there?

For those who have worked in the private sector, have you ever replaced equipment because routine maintenance was deferred?  Spent months developing a strategic plan only to disregard it in the day-to-day rush of business?  Perhaps implemented a new business model, only to reject it a short time later because of internal politics?

It’s our nature to be inefficient, especially when we possess more than the minimum resources needed to survive.

It’s only in poverty, and in poverty’s business and government equivalents, that efficiency is maximized.  A person who lives at a level of bare sustenance wears clothes until they’re nearly rags and eats every scrap of food possible.  A business or government that is unsure of making payroll doesn’t even have the resources to think strategically, much less to make strategic missteps.

So Howard Jarvis was right.  Government can be more efficient.  In both his era and ours.  But a government that is reduced to the efficiency that results from dire straits lacks the resources to plan our future. 

A government that is in constant fear of municipal bankruptcy is a government can’t innovate, but must focus on continuing to do what it’s always done in hopes of survival.  It would be like a mother who’s dumpster diving.  While she’s desperately looking for food, she’s not planning for her children’s college education.  If we insist on complete government efficiency, we are choking off our own futures and those of our children.

Which isn’t to say that governments don’t occasionally make bone-headed decisions for which they should be criticized.  But before denying them revenue because of those decisions, we might want to think about the treadmill gathering dust in our backrooms.

Rather than focusing on shortcomings, we should be looking for ways to help government meet our needs more efficiently, such as implementing urbanism.  And afterwards, we can post those treadmills on Craigslist.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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