Commentary: Government endeavors are wasteful until they're essential

The Kansas City StarFebruary 12, 2012 

Tuesday's weird, doesn't-really-count Missouri presidential primary came in the middle of Missouri's weird, doesn't-really-count winter, two facts that help illustrate Helling's first axiom of politics and government, which may be stated thus:

Most government endeavors are wasteful.

Until they're essential.

Local and state governments, for example, spent millions of dollars last fall buying the armaments of their annual War on Winter: salt, sand, beet juice, truck parts, scraper blades, stuff like that. Sitting here now, as the tropical breezes of a Kansas City winter waft through the newsroom, that money looks like a waste. Better to have spent it on other public needs, or left in the pockets of taxpayers.

Except if it snows. If that happens, all the idle equipment and material will turn, overnight, from wasteful to essential — in fact, the most essential public spending in a city, more important than the police or fire department or building inspections or anything else.

Elections are another example. For most of the year, those $3,000 to $5,000 voting machines gather dust, the definition of waste. On Election Day, though, accurate voting machines are — essential.

Snow removal and elections are two easy examples of the first axiom, but there are others. I’ve never had to call the fire department, though I’ve spent hundreds in tax dollars over 35 years supporting it. A waste? Yes, until my house catches fire. Then the fire department is essential.

Teacher salaries are a waste if your kids are out of school, essential if they’re in.

This isn’t a liberal argument. Military spending is wasteful, too — all those tanks and trucks and cannons and bombs have little practical use until we’re attacked. Then they’re essential.

Politicians have grappled with this wasteful-but-essential dilemma for decades, with generally unsatisfying results, largely because they take the wrong lessons from it. Republicans see waste and want to get rid of government; Democrats see a need and want government to spend unlimited amounts to meet any possible contingency.

Neither approach is correct. We need a fire department, but we can’t afford a fire station on every block.

There’s only one way for politicians to square that circle: They must buy things we may never need, but do it as cheaply as possible. Which leads us to Helling’s second axiom, stated thus:

Governments must do wasteful things.

B ut they must do those things efficiently.

State governments, city halls and Washington, D.C., are now hard at work on spending blueprints for the coming year. Kansas City Mayor Sly James will present his proposed budget this week.

Let’s hope they keep the second axiom in mind. And while we’re at it, let’s hope it doesn’t snow.

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