I'm not repeating anything new when I say that, European-like, liberals' idea of a perfect world is one where the Government runs as many things as possible. (Hillary's 1994 healthcare proposal springs to mind.) The other day, I had an experience that reminded me, once again, why the fewer things the government controls, the better.
I needed to get copies of my children's birth certificates. A little online snooping revealed that, if I did it by mail, I'd get them in 60 days; if I shlepped into the City, I'd get them in two hours. So off to the City I went.
When I arrived at the Records office, I was the third in line. Two windows were open. "Oh, joy!" I thought. "I'll be out of here in ten minutes." My hopes were dashed when the clerk working one window finished with a customer, contemptuously scanned the line (which had now grown to five people), and simply walked away. He then sat down at his desk and stared off into space. That left one window (and a line that had now grown to eight people).
The one window moved slowly, since the woman ahead of me in line had a complicated problem that seemed, appropriately, to require a lot of attention. She was a black woman and, from what I could hear, a friendly, nice person, who was focused on what she was doing. The single working clerk was also black, and was conversing with her in a chatty way. They chatted and chatted. The line was now ten people.
Eventually, it was my turn. Have I mentioned that I'm white? I am. I note it now only because I was struck by the clerk's demeanor towards me after her interactions with the previous customer. She extended an arm through the window and grabbed my forms. She would not look at me. Because I too am a friendly person (just like the last customer), I said hello and smiled. The clerk turned her head slightly, twisted her mouth into a rictus of a smile, and immediately looked away from me. I assumed that this was a race-based problem. I could be wrong. Maybe she was shy. Maybe she knew me from the past and I'd once offended her. Maybe I hadn't said "hello" the correct way. I do know that, whatever her personal feelings towards me, this wouldn't have happened if she'd been in the private sector and (a) could earn commissions for satisfied customers or (b) could lose her job over unsatisfied ones.
Anyway, halfway through working on my papers, another clerk came up, tapped the unfriendly clerk on the shoulder, and took over. The other woman, Hispanic, also refused to acknowledge me. At the end, she handed me the forms I'd filled in and said, "Go to the cashier." I asked, "Do I come back to this window to get the certificates?" Her response, "Just go to the cashier." As it happened, I discovered once I'd paid that the printer was on the cashier's side of the office, and it was she who handed me the completed certificates.
Overall, the transaction didn't take too long and I got exactly what I wanted — two birth certificates. I also left with a horrible taste in my mouth about dealing with the Government. The people who worked in that office knew three things: (a) I had nowhere else to go since they have a monopoly on the information I needed; (b) they would not be fired for anything short of saying they voted for George Bush; and (c) there was absolutely no reward for them in acting with common decency. I also think, and this is just my opinion, that these factors gave them the freedom to treat me with that little extra bit of rudeness because I'm white. [You can beat me around the head for this last one, but just be polite when you do.]
When I told this to Mr. Bookworm, who is still a big government liberal, he didn't think the problem was a government monopoly backed by government unions. He fell back on the "human decency" argument. That is, economic incentives aside, he said that human decency requires good behavior, and these people just lacked that. It certainly is true that, in the suburbs where I live, people in the local government offices are friendly. It's a fairly small community, friendliness is the norm, and these are often people you'll interact with outside of the office confines. But the lucky fact that I live in a nice community doesn't excuse the general failings of government run businesses, nor the fact that, by their nature, they're prone to precisely the failings I described above.
The fact is that a government bureaucrat who can't be fired, who gets no reward for good behavior, and who knows you have nowhere else to go, will revel in that power. And with power goes corruption. In this regard, I am reminded of a friend of mine who confided that his mother worked in a small town Department of Motor Vehicles, and was one of a group of the most vicious bunch of women he'd ever met. When I protested that this couldn't be true, he said that these women had complete power over the community — they knew everything about everyone through the records, and they could make or break people by withholding access to their driver's licenses. This power, without oversight or restraint, had simply corrupted them. I doubted it then (I was a liberal, after all), but I believe it now.