Politics & Media
Jun 02, 2017, 10:01AM

Government Sucks

Unless you’re willing to pay for it.

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A good way to get people to want to cut government services is to cut government services. This isn't a new insight, but it was brought home to me recently when I tried to get my car emissions tested. In Illinois, vehicle emissions are checked for excessive pollutants every two years; you need to pass in order to get your license plates renewed.

In the past, getting a renewal wasn't that big a deal. There were numerous test sites in the city. The state would send you a letter telling you it was time, and you'd take an hour out of your day and that was that.

Under Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, though, nothing in Illinois is easy. Rauner is determined to cut government services and crush unions; as a result, he's been unable to get a full budget through the Democratic legislature. Last year, the state stopped sending out renewal notices for license plates; you'd suddenly realize you were overdue when you got a ticket. This year they did manage to send out email notifications—but they've shut down most of the emissions sites in the city.

Thanks to the closures, getting my car tested turned into a comical time sink. I drove to a nearby site in Skokie—only to discover that it had been shut down. So I had to take another workday to drive to the next closest site, which was 40 minutes away. A 90-minute round trip for the privilege of paying a hundred bucks for a license renewal. At least, on this weekday, the line wasn't long. There have been reports of people on weekends waiting for hours.

This sort of thing makes you curse the state and all its functions. Someone demands you jump through hoops, and then cements over the hoop, so you jump and bash your head. It's why people hate government. The authorities makes demands and then prevent you from meeting them and punish you for not being able to do what they tell you. It's enraging.

Confronted with shitty government, people naturally blame government. If this is how the state of Illinois operates, the less the state of Illinois should operate. Fie upon these unresponsive bureaucrats: let's elect a businessman like Rauner or Trump to get rid of these dumb regulations and turn the red tape into confetti.

The thought process is understandable. But in this case it's exactly backwards. Illinois government is unresponsive and crappy in large part because government has been gutted. Monitoring pollution levels is an important government function. A disproportionate percentage of toxic emissions are produced by a small number of cars, so emissions testing is a smart, effective way to identify those cars and make sure that the air is breathable. Having the state test emissions makes sense—unless you close all the testing centers.

This is the paradox of our rage for deregulation and cutting government. The more you starve government, the worse government works—which makes people hate government, and want to starve government more. Which in turn means government doesn't work, and then people hate it more, and so forth. To generate support for hamstringing government, hamstring government.

Cutting government more, though, doesn't make anything better. Getting rid of testing centers makes it harder for people to get their cars tested—and eliminates a bunch of jobs. If Illinois got rid of the emissions testing requirement altogether, cities like Chicago would be smoggier, and people with asthma like my wife, son, and me would have more trouble breathing. 

Anti-government types tout the logic of the market. But they seem to forget the one iron law of capitalism: "You get what you pay for." If you don't pay for your government, your government will suck. That's something for Illinois residents to contemplate on their long drive to emissions centers. And it's something for everyone in the US to contemplate as Paul Ryan and company contemplate doing to the nation what Rauner has done to Illinois.  


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