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Conflicting Citizen Demands Leads to Disappointment in Government

By Terry McKee, director of procurement at Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation

I believe that one of the reasons people disparage government at all levels is because of an absence of a proclaimed political philosophy that aligns with their true wishes about the way government spends its money.

I have served as the procurement officer for three different governmental entities and have observed inconsistent patterns between the scope of government people think they want, compared with their actual expectations for governmental services. I have seen the same phenomenon play out in my own community, where many of my fellow residents call for “cutting” taxes while simultaneously wanting certain specific areas of government funded at higher levels.

I have several friends, for example, who say they believe in limited government. All three routinely call for lowering our taxes.

Yet one, who works in our public school system, frequently posts on social media calling for increased spending on K12 education. Another small-government aficionado I know works in law enforcement and consistently calls for increasing funding for law enforcement. Yet another friend works with disabled children and routinely bemoans that “government” does not better fund such programs.

These examples show the incongruent thinking that challenges elected officials across the nation: “Lower my taxes but fund my passion to the maximum.”

Contradictory goals create a predicament for elected officials. Local, state and federal candidates, often campaign on “keeping taxes low” and “getting government out of your life” because that is what we tell them we want. Once they are in office, we push them to fund the services we are passionate about and we push them to not increase taxes. Many politicians exacerbate this issue by campaigning on “cutting taxes,” but once elected, they effectively make it likely that taxes will rise higher by pushing for new programs or increasing existing programs to accomplish the projects that have been developed without a realistic funding plan.

This inconsistency in thinking also plays out within governments. Earlier in my career, I led the procurement efforts for a county government. During those years I remember comments from various departments telling me to prioritize their purchases because “my department” should take precedence. What that meant was “I run the Health Department and we help people stay healthy so obviously our needs must come first.” “I take care of the roads-so I am more important,” “I arrest criminals, so my needs come first.“ Each major department thought it was the worthiest of funding. Not that any department wanted other departments to lack funding, they were just laser focused on their passion. Taken to an extreme, this is a problem because elected officials must balance all of those advocating for a portion of the limited available funds for the government to function.

I suggest that one of the reasons citizens are so frustrated with government is due to our own inconsistent expectations for government. We want low taxes; responsive government and we want the areas of government that we care about passionately to be funded to the maximum. Politicians cater to our desires to get elected and we verbalize “keep my taxes low” very loudly.

Once elected though we expect them to lower our taxes at the same time as they fund our passions and the passions of our friends and neighbors. This results in unrealistic expectations and frustration later when governments cannot deliver both low taxes and the services we demand.

The solution seems to be for citizens to recognize that even if we want small government, there is a cost to providing good roads, schools, libraries and protective services. Goods and services do not magically materialize for governments any more than they magically appear for us as individuals. Goods and services cost governments money just like they cost businesses and individuals. We need to accept that there is a cost to government and that if we want services, we must pay for them through taxes. We need to contribute to good government by having realistic expectations concerning service levels and taxes. We must accept the fact that the government we want has costs.

While efficiencies in government can certainly save money, they can only go so far. There’s an old cliché that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This old saw likely emanated in the practice in saloons of providing free food to get people to drink more – and that’s where the money was to be made.

The origins may be different, but the idea is the same: There is no such thing as a free government.

The contents of this guest column reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.


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