by Tim O'Brien
February 9, 1999
Making the rounds in my political circle is our own version of the familiar "lightbulb" riddle that goes:
"How many libertarians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"
The answer, of course, is: "None, the market will do it."
Once you get us beyond our natural tendency to harangue -- some might even say, pontificate -- endlessly about the inherent immorality of basing social institutions on coercion (we are actually naive enough to take Jefferson's words about "the consent of the governed" seriously), our answer to the challenge of providing public services always seems to be the same: unfettered free enterprise.
Indeed, I've heard a pretty convincing case made for the power of the market to meet every public need with the sole exception of national defense. And years of observing politics has provided innumerable examples of government failure.
A somewhat mundane instance of the latter rained down upon the city of Detroit on the second day of the new year. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say the city was "snowed under" by it. Despite having both a city income tax and a property tax rate so high that nearly all major corporations have been driven out (one would think local officials might have gotten a clue when the largest single employer in the city of Detroit became... the city of Detroit), the services these are supposed to fund that aren't entirely absent are nothing short of abysmal.
Nearly a foot of snow the day after New Years, for example, left the entire city utterly paralyzed for the next two weeks. Major thoroughfares went unplowed and so remained perpetually ensnarled with traffic. Residential streets were completely impassable stranding citizens and leaving them cut-off even from emergency services. Schools were closed. It turns out that 59 plows is insufficient to clear nearly 3000 miles of streets in any reasonable time-frame (say, before the spring thaw). Who could have guessed?
With thinly-veiled resentment at the implication that all of this was somehow the city government's fault, Mayor Archer blamed God for the situation and promised to seek assistance (money, actually, which it now appears he will in fact get by the bucketsful) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Finally, the call went out for volunteer help. Two weeks to the day after the big blizzard -- which had been exacerbated by additional snowfalls in the interim more than doubling the total accumulation -- citizens were asked to bring out their snow shovels and snow blowers and join in a massive effort to clear the streets.
This endeavor was especially important since there would be no plowing by unionized drivers either the next day which was, of course, Sunday or the day after that which, as luck would have it, was Martin Luther King Day. (Some "Emergency," eh?) Noticeable progress was, as a result, made in clearing some streets and sidewalks around the schools. But the real break came when the Almighty -- who, as we had been advised by the mayor, after all bore ultimate responsibility for this debacle in the first place -- deigned to bring us sunshine and above freezing temperatures. Of course, there are more significant examples of private resourcefulness in compensating for more intractable public inadequacies. The legal monopoly postal system that just raised rates for the fourth time in the last decade (and, though perhaps still undaunted by rain or heat or gloom of night, for the sake of truth-in-advertising really ought to drop snow from the list as in Motown last month it did, indeed, stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds) is losing ever increasing portions of information delivery services to fax machines and e-mail.
Private businesses are now routinely including provisions in contracts that require "Binding Arbitration" in the event of a dispute in order to bypass the terminally clogged court system. In fact there are now more individuals providing even "police" type security services on private than public payrolls. The list of circumstances in which Americans pay government -- exorbitantly, I might add -- to provide services and then find some other way to actually get those services is just about equal to the number of services provided by government.
How many bureaucrats would it actually take to operate the public infrastructure?
None, the market could do it.
Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.