Krugman and I Agree on the DMV
By David Henderson
The DMV is not nearly as good an example of government incompetence as other examples that are out there. Some of those other examples are of government horror. Let’s use those examples.
Every once in a while I agree with Paul Krugman. Almost all such cases occur when he’s putting on his economist’s hat only and not his political hat. His article “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea,” for example, is a modern classic.
But today I found myself agreeing with him when he criticizes some libertarians. That’s new. What’s his criticism? He writes:
I see that some of the commenters on my libertarian piece invoke the old “horrors of the DMV” line to claim that government never works.
What’s remarkable about this line is that it reflects a fantasy — in this case, a negative fantasy — more than the reality. I’m sure that there are terrible DMV offices where people have miserable experiences, but that’s by no means universal or even normal. These days you can usually make appointments online; and even when you don’t, how bad is the experience? I’ve visited the Baker’s Basin DMV on Route 1 many times, and while I’ve sometimes had to wait a while, the people have been generally helpful and the lines have moved fast.
And if you compare the DMV with some private-sector bureaucracies — [cough] ExpressScripts [cough] — it’s a model of customer service.
The point is that the vision of hopeless government isn’t grounded in personal experience, let alone data. At this point it’s a cultural cliche, or a projection by people who read Atlas Shrugged in their teens and never grew up.
I’ve never found the DMV point persuasive. Like Krugman, I’ve found that if I have the foresight to make an appointment, it has been pretty painless.
I think, though, that libertarians who use the DMV example are probably intellectually lazy and have not thought hard for good examples.
And good examples of hopeless government are all around us:
. Cops choking Eric Garner to death;
. Drug warriors invading the wrong house (oops) and shooting innocent people;
. George H.W. Bush setting in motion a horrible chain of events by making war on Iraq;
. Government officials in the FDA preventing people from getting access to drugs;
. Barack Obama deciding which parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act he wishes to enforce;
. The IRS going after Tea Party organizations and then, somehow, conveniently losing many of the relevant e-mails;
. Children being arrested in schools for doing the things that children often do;
. The U.S. Navy shooting down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing all on board;
and, of course,
. NSA spying on its own citizens.
I could name dozens more.
We can often learn from our ideological opponents. Paul Krugman has given us a free lesson. Let’s use it.
HT to Mark Thoma.
Postcript: I just noticed this post by Tyler Cowen and found it useful. He points out, implicitly, that both Krugman and I are judging the DMV by fairly superficial criteria, the main one being waiting times. Still, I think that’s how many libertarians who use the DMV as their Exhibit A of government incompetence are judging it by those same superficial criteria.