A sidebar in the May 2012 St. Louis magazine profile of St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley includes a little snapshot that identifies a certain mindset amongst government officials and citizens who continually want to cede more power to the government and its officials: namely, that disagreement with policy is a sign of insanity.
Here’s what Dooley says regarding the relatively recent decision to have the government decide who hauls away the trash for people in unincorporated St. Louis County:
At the end of the day, it was the best thing that could happen to St. Louis County. Great prices, we got recycling… It was said, ‘You took away my choice.’ When somebody comes to the County Council and says, ‘I moved to unincorporated St. Louis County and built my own home because I wanted to pick my own trash collector’—why would you say that? Do you think anybody in their right mind would believe that?
The mindset he finds abnormal is the mindset that governments, even local governments, have proper limitations. That perhaps local governments can identify hazardous conditions and make them illegal, but that governments should not mandate solutions, particularly specific commercial solutions and vendors, to provide the solution to citizens under the penalty of law.
In the case of the trash collection issue, the government should have the power to come together and say, “Hey, no piles of rotting filth on your land.” And then leave the citizen to take care of making sure his behavior does not lead to violation. There are alternate solutions to the city selecting a vendor to provide a service the city mandates: The citizen can decide not to consume things that produce garbage, the citizen can haul the garbage to a collection point when the citizen gets enough, the citizen can hire someone to take it away, the citizen can pool his resources with neighbors to voluntarily hire someone to haul their garbage away, and such.
True story: In an affected part of unincorporated St. Louis County, namely Lemay, I know of some elderly women who lived near each other that together every week produced only a couple of bags of trash total. They got together and hired a waste hauler, and they all threw their bags in that garbage can. With the new mandate, every address needed to have a waste hauler, which burdened a number of the older people on fixed incomes with additional monthly expenses so the county’s preferred vendor could dump one bag per trash can.
Asking for a defining principle that identifies the limitations of government: Insanity! The government has chosen a trash hauler for you. The government selected, some long time ago, a cable television company for you (except in certain areas). What service can’t the government decide you need to purchase and from whom you purchase it? (Certainly not health insurance any more.)
A wireless provider? Why not? Think of how much more beautiful the county’s skyline would be if only one carrier had to build all those transmission towers. That will never happen! you might say, but why not? Because wireless data and phone is somehow different from garbage hauling or cable television? How? Please, if you have a good distinction, put it in the comments below. I’ll grant you that it requires less costly infrastructure than digging up the streets to drag a cable, but trash hauling does not require physical infrastructure. (Roads, they might say. Roads, though, are public infrastructure not for use by one user. I’ll play the devil’s counselor and say that the skyline is a public resource, too, littered up so everyone suffers. That’s just the sort of argument that some people make for fewer streetlights and other things.)
You’re right, though. The governments won’t single out a wireless company to protect the skyline because some municipalities tax those towers, and they wouldn’t allow the county to take tax money out of their pockets.
But I digress.
Any time you give the ability for the government the opportunity to award large contracts to individual companies, you increase the chances of corruption. Take, for example, Chicago:
A major federal investigation of corruption in Chicago`s government has turned up allegations of everything from payoffs by the nation`s biggest trash hauler to some old-fashioned shakedowns by a freshman alderman.
Aside from the actual potential corruption, compulsory use of a preferred government vendor leads to the whiff of impropriety that political opponents can carp about. Say that the vice president of the chosen waste hauler, a lifelong Democrat who thinks Charlie Dooley is doing an excellent job keeping the county’s fiscal house in order in turbulent economic times, gives Charlie Dooley some money for re-election. Suddenly, the punditry is all awash in the possibility of quid-pro-quo going on, and nobody bothers to explain why, as a principle, compelling people to use a garbageman under the penalty of fine, imprisonment, or death is wrong. Instead, we get celebrityesque dirty laundry.
Now, you have to take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt, because I’m a Dooley-diagnosed schizophrenic who moved from a heavily regulated municipality in St. Louis County to unincorporated Greene County. Did I move solely because I can let my grass grow to over 12″ high or some days, Heaven forfend!, mow my lawn and not run the weed trimmer around the fence posts until the next day? Did I move just so that I could choose my own waste hauler, settling upon the waste hauler whom my neighbors all use without careful analysis of the costs and the benefits and the alternative plans offered by other, smaller haulers? I moved for a variety of reasons, but the fact that I was moving from an area of higher regulation to lower regulation did have some consideration. I chose, after all, an unincorporated area rather than a city (which is what we call municipalities down here, at least until they grow together and small patches of subdivisions band together defensively to avoid annexation) because I did want more liberty.
But any of these arguments or argument stumps are mere examples of my being not in my right mind, according to Mr. Dooley and to others who have the right mind and, with the right will, will impose that right mind upon everyone.