Some important questions most governments never ask

Terry Garlock's picture

Our bloated federal government has been running amok for a long time, under Democrat and Republican administrations alike, creating mountains of debt and intruding into nooks and crannies of our personal lives where they should not tread. The fingers of state, county and city government reach too far into our pocket and our lives as well.

Government’s imperative is to grow. When times are good and tax revenue is up, advocates of the needy ask for more and more largess, taxpayers demand more services with little regard to cost, and there is no shortage of government staff ideas on bigger-better-faster-more. Government grows.

Until the budget is starved.

Which is the only way, it seems, that governments can be forced to refocus on essentials, because they seem never to ask the critical questions. Here are some thoughts on one way I believe governments at all levels should be run like a business.

A man or woman starting a new business knows they must focus on essentials and run lean to succeed. Deliver the very best quality product or service. Keep customers happy. Collect payment promptly. Minimize expenses because they put food on the table with the remains. There is no time or money for non-essential extras.

If the business succeeds and grows, a price often paid for success is diluted focus on essentials. As the business thrives and creates new jobs, the owner hires employees and managers, delegating front-line responsibilities. With each step the owner becomes personally removed from the customer, from collections, from tight-fisted control over expenses; with every level of the organization chart in a large business, the focus on essentials is progressively diluted.

A very few companies, like Chick-fil-A, maintain excellence by creating an internal culture that continuously requires employees to focus on essentials. Most companies never find that magic button, and pay the price of creeping, eventually slumbering bureaucracy as each employee finds their comfort zone, far down in the organization, far distant from the motivations of the owner, laboring on their own assigned responsibilities, working hard on what may ultimately turn out to be at odds with the owner’s goals.

Thus, mediocrity reigns in many business organizations, which is why well-run companies kick the butts of their competitors.

Now imagine trying to create excellence in governments, where salaries are often too low, some staff are excellent but employee rights protect marginal performers, revenue rises and falls with economic cycles, demands for services are endless and new leaders with their own agenda come and go with election cycles.

Whether at the federal, state, county or city level, I have never heard a government leader say we must do less, and that by doing less we must improve the services that are essential. Always, it seems, we must do more.

What should government do, and what should it NOT try to do? What are the few fundamental things government should try ever harder to do well, while resisting all temptation to do other things that dilute attention to essentials? How can government intentionally keep itself small, confining itself with strict discipline to the things it must do and do them with excellence?

Too bad governments never ask themselves those questions. Too bad governments don’t review frequently a very short list of duties they should perform with excellence, crossing out and ignoring the hundreds of extra things they are asked to do, things they want to do.

I must be getting old because it seems not long ago that Bill Clinton was chasing skirts around the Oval Office while Hillary gave frequent speeches pointing the finger at evil people on the right who “... don’t pay their fair share” in taxes, implying that if stingy taxpayers would just pay more then government could do the things she wanted to do.

At one point Hillary was asked who would decide how much tax is “fair” and requested to pinpoint a percentage of income she thought was “fair.” She answered only with a frosty glare.

During that same timeframe, a TV documentary probing the role of government showed a number of questionable programs. My favorite was a man at the Food and Drug Administration who tested various products. He demonstrated how he rated the thickness of various brands of catsup by pouring them on a slanted board and timing their run to numbered measurement lines.

When asked if he thought this was a good thing for our government to do – leaving unsaid that meant paying his salary and benefits and lifelong pension — he answered with his own question to make it clear he was proud of his role protecting the American consumer: “Wouldn’t you like to know which catsup is thicker before you spend your hard-earned money?”

We can debate forever what is and is not a good idea, a worthwhile endeavor. But even if we find agreement on a good idea, that certainly doesn’t mean the government should do it.

Government should do a limited number of things, and do them well. My guess is our federal government exceeded the limitations of what should be its mandate long before I was born.

A new test is brewing on what the federal government should, or can, do. Even before the gargantuan healthcare bill finds its final form in conference between the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, opponents are preparing a constitutional challenge on the basis there is no federal constitutional authority to compel citizens to purchase health insurance.

I’m not a lawyer, much less a constitutional lawyer, but it would appear to me the states may have the legal right to compel citizens to purchase health insurance, but the fed does not. Don’t bet the farm on my armchair analysis.

My personal list of what government should do would be a very short one, and governments at all levels would find it difficult to trim back services and programs to satisfy my desire to be left alone. Recessionary times like these, with reduced tax revenue and budget shortfalls, provide the perfect opportunity for governments to ask themselves about focusing on essentials, because they are faced with hard choices and forced priorities.

I wonder how many governments will ask themselves such questions when they are naturally inclined to ask for more and more ... and more. When Hillary implies we should pay more to be fair, you might wonder how much of your income is enough, how much of it do they want in the end?

Taking the nature of government to its logical end, even Hillary may not realize the answer is likely to be – all of it.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City may be reached at tgarlock.com.]