*The Myth of Government Efficiency

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

I recently heard someone say that a certain journalist always writes with an “unbiased opinion”. I laughed, because that’s an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a contradiction. It’s a statement about something or someone that combines opposite or contradictory terms. The word literally means “acutely silly”.

Being almost perfect, pretty ugly, or going on a working holiday are the same. Found missing, acting naturally, and having a minor crisis all fit into the same basket. Their companions are old news, plastic glasses, and thunderous silence. None of these things actually exist.

In the English language there are hundreds of these phrases that describe non-existent things. There may even be thousands. But regardless of their number the king of them has got to be “government efficiency”. It’s an oxymoron that sounds especially good on the lips of an aspiring politician, but as good as it sounds, it’ll never happen. For a very very good reason, it can’t happen.

Governments are inefficient for the same reason that dogs bark. It’s part of their DNA. There’s no way to change it. The DNA of a dog is biologic. The DNA of a government and why it will always be inefficient is determined by the manner in which it spends. In all of life there are just four ways to spend money:

The first is when people use their own money to buy something for themselves. When they do, they look for the best value at the best price. They hunt for bargains and greatly inconvenience themselves to find them. This is why ranchers and farmers haggle with equipment dealers and why thousands of stores across the country put items on sale.

The second way to spend is when people use their own money to buy something for someone else. They still want a bargain, but aren’t as interested in pleasing the recipient as they would be if they were buying for themselves.

The third way to spend is to use other people’s money to buy something for you. People in this position buy exactly what they want, but price no longer matters. If we could all buy cars under this type of arrangement the world would be full of Porsches and BMWs.

The fourth and final way to spend is to use other people’s money to buy something for someone else. As humorist P.J. O’Rourke says, if someone finds himself able to spend millions of dollars in this kind of a situation, “who would give a %$&# about efficiency?” This is the world that governments live in, and because they do, the idea that they can be made efficient is a fantasy.

Lots of people say that government should be run more like a business. The truth is that it can’t run like a business. Businesses always spend their own money. Governments always spend yours. That’s why politicians can give grants to businesses they’d never buy shares in, and pass fists full of cash to special interest groups. If they were spending their own money things would be very different.

Government efficiency is a myth. It is as far from reality as the doctrines of the Flat Earth Society. Who’s doing the spending and whose money is being spent is always what determines efficiency. It explains why the best government is the government that does the least. And why the best politicians are those who work not to make government more efficient, but smaller.

Kevin Avram was the founder of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Prairie Centre Policy Institute, a Regina-based policy research organization. He now resides in Mesa, Arizona.