You Get What You Pay For

I have a lot of respect for newspaper people who write daily editorials or columns.  My weekly blog taxes my limited powers of observation, imagination, and intellect; so, I know it is a real challenge to write accurate, informative, and thoughtful columns every day.  Not surprisingly, even the best editorialists write an occasional clinker.

Yesterday’s newspaper contained a diatribe complaining about government robbing us of our freedom.  This is a familiar theme not only in the media, but also in everyday conversation.  Who among us has not resented one government regulation or another at some time in our life?  I have already confessed in an earlier blog that I occasionally violated angling regulations when I was an adolescent (the statute of limitations applies here).  I have, however, also lived and worked in a number of places where government has little or no influence on the lives of its citizens.

If you can imagine a place where there is no enforcement of traffic laws; every household has at least one AK47; garbage covers the landscape; electricity and water service costs nothing; no one pays taxes; people are routinely blown up; roads are filled with potholes; ambulance and fire service is largely nonexistent; police officers are as likely to be criminals or terrorists as law enforcement officials; and public servants frequently serve no one but themselves, you will have imagined Iraq in 2004.  People were largely free to do whatever they wanted, but it is interesting to note that almost no one seemed happy or content.

During my first visit to Indonesia in 2001, I learned that foreign correspondents from at least one country received a stipend in their pay to cover the cost of bribing public officials for information.  I saw no evidence of traffic enforcement; but I was told that on the rare occasion when a police officer stopped someone, the fine was taken care of on the spot.  I was also able to witness firsthand the presidential transition from one political party to another when tanks and armored personnel carriers surrounded the presidential palace and compelled the old president to give way to a new one.

Working in Sri Lanka in 2006, I visited 14 local government offices throughout the island nation.  Concepts of budgeting, transparency, public participation, and accountability for service delivery were largely unknown.  I saw very little evidence of effective public services, unless you count a very visible military presence.  I worked closely with a Sri Lankan friend in Iraq, who, like most educated Sri Lankans, had emigrated to the U.S. years before we met.

I will be leaving for a three-week assignment in Ethiopia at the end of this month (It’s how I spend my vacations.) where I have been asked to work with a local government on “revenue enhancement” and completing a public toilet project.  This work is part of a capacity building effort by the U.S. Agency for International Development that tries to help make local governments more effective at serving their people.  If successful, I may be helping this local government get more money in taxes and fees from local residents.

I wrote the following paragraph while working in Iraq in 2004:

“I see progress every day in Iraq, and democracy is starting to take root.  Iraqi citizens will need to recognize, however, what even those of us who have it sometimes forget.  The greatest freedom we enjoy in the United States is not license to do anything we please.  The Iraqis have more of that kind of freedom right now than we do. Our greatest liberty is our power to control our own destiny.  We are not the helpless victims of fate; and if we do not like the condition of our government or our lives, we can change them.  People of many nationalities, but mostly Iraqis, are dying to secure that liberty here.  I believe it is a worthwhile cause.”

I guess it makes sense that a city manager who has spent a long career working for local governments would see the world differently than a newspaper editor who has spent a long career looking at and for the worst in government.  There is validity in both perspectives; but based on my experience, I would much rather pay for reliable government services than pay little or nothing and receive commensurate value.