Trying To Reform Government Is Largely a Waste of Time

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by Steven Greenhut

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Whenever I speak or write about California's pension and public debt problems, I always hear from well-intentioned, conservative- and libertarian-minded people who want me to consider their solutions. Most of their ideas — caps on this kind of spending or that, changed pension formulas, public votes, etc. — are sensible enough, but they always miss the main point.

That is, they misunderstand the nature of government. They think that government is an institution that does all these necessary things and can therefore be reformed. But government is a vast force-based enterprise designed to take as much money from the public and give as much of it as possible to the clients of government. It's a wealth transfer and any genuine services government provides can be done better, cheaper and more humanely in the private sector.

When it comes to pensions, there's no technical problem. In about three seconds, I can craft a non-radical, extremely modest plan that ends unfunded pension liabilities. Starting tomorrow, public employees no longer receive defined-benefit plans and instead get a 401/k-style plan like typical private-sector serfs. What are they going to do, quit en masse and get private-sector jobs? I hear readers laughing now.

Problem solved. The real problem, though, is not technical, but political. The public-sector unions that run this state, and the Democrats and Republicans who do their bidding, would never allow it. As it is, they fight any tiny reform, even for future workers. So why waste any brain cells thinking about big fixes in a state government where legislators not only resist modest reforms but still hatch schemes to expand benefit levels for the elite class of government employees?

Remember — the main goal of government is to get more for them. California’s Democrats argue publicly that the public pension system is a historic success and that the real problem is the stinginess of the private sector. We have to understand this mindset.

In my experience, the average reform-minded person thinks that legislators and even some government employees will come to support sensible reforms when they realize that we're only trying to rein in excesses. They think government should operate more like a business.

They think that if we convince enough people about the waste and abuse, they will rally behind our measures and proposals. After all, the current situation is unsustainable and our reforms will save the government from itself. They are as wrong as they are well intentioned.

The truth is government is like rust. It never sleeps. Government grows for its own sake and it has no intention to stay limited. Every bureaucracy, once taken root, will grow as long as someone feeds it.

Whereas private companies celebrate when they spend less to achieve more, government values the opposite things. Have you ever noticed how government always measures its success in terms of how much money it spends? It's impossible to give government agencies enough money for anything. The more poorly they spend existing money, the better opportunity they have to clamor for more cash: "We never had enough to do the job right in the first place."

When asked once what he ultimately wanted, a union official replied: "More." That's what it's all about. Unions would rather drive the entire economy over the cliff and bankrupt a city or state than give up anything. Government has no bottom line, no customers and cannot be run like a business. Government operates by force and as a result doesn't care how unhappy the public is with its services. You don't like the IRS or local cops, what are you going to do about it? Any business with that attitude would, in the adapted words of Monty Python, be an "ex-business” because no one would go there. Government only has to take your taxes.

Every private-sector job depends on willing buyers and willing sellers. Obviously, people who value free exchange head to the private sector, and the government sector is a magnet for those who operate in an authoritarian kind of world. It's therefore not surprising when government agencies send out press releases celebrating the huge fines they impose on businesses, as does the California Air Resources Board. It’s understandable why Democratic leaders in Sacramento, for instance, drip with disdain toward the private sector.

One could argue that every dollar given to government would be better put inside an incinerator. Have you ever known an incinerator to abuse someone's property rights? Do you know any incinerators that get "3 percent at 50" pensions? Likewise, any effort to reform government is filled with problems. Would you want an IRS that did a better job tracking and monitoring us?

I honestly don't know what we do about the frightening growth in government power, but I do agree with H.L. Mencken, who wrote: "I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time." Don't get me wrong — I appreciate the people who want to fix the current system, but they need to remember that government needs to be stifled rather than reformed.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a Sacramento-based writer and author of Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives And Bankrupting The Nation.

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