Liberty Begins at Home


Cutting Back City Hall, by Robert W. Poole, Jr., foreword by William E. Simon, New York: Universe Books, 1980, 224 pp., $12.50.

It is probably fair to say Robert Poole's new book is far more significant and important than it is interesting. As a leading line in a review, this sounds like a backhand slap at Poole's prose style. It is not. Poole writes well. His topic, however, is one that has successfully eluded the interest of political theorists and ordinary citizens for the entire time that human beings have been organized in civilized society. That is to say, Poole is attempting to analyze alternative means for the provision of collective goods, including means that could point to a reduction in the scope of government over time.

To even attempt such an analysis, Poole has been obliged to trespass upon the near-monopoly of information enjoyed by bureaucrats over the details of the operation of government services. Poole can write authoritatively about alternative means for garbage and solid waste disposal because he has mastered an astounding array of facts. For example:

In the Little Neck Douglaston sections of Queens, for example, twice-a-week residential service was costing $297 a year in 1975. Just three miles away in a similar neighborhood, Bellerose, in Nassau County, a private firm was providing three-times-a-week service for only $72 a year.

Such detail, which suggests a practically indisputable case against the governmental provision of garbage collection, at least along the lines practiced in Queens, points toward the evolution of a new perspective on politics that could significantly improve the possibility of attaining a free society.

The main thrust of Poole's work is empirical, rather than philosophic, or ideological. Poole is telling us what few have known before, simply because it was too boring to sift through police files to discover that most crimes are solved by the victims or witnesses and not by the police themselves through data collection or detective work. This is a fact that has large importance, especially in combination with other facts that Poole develops in his chapter on police. Altogether, he considerably strengthens the view that police protection is often a private rather than a collective good.

In the process, Poole demonstrates how the purposes of government programs could be enhanced by innovations that sever the connection between government growth and the vested interests of those who constitute the government. In other words, much of Cutting Back City Hall is written as though situational constraints—the costs and rewards of various options open to individuals—are more important than ideology in determining how a society operates.

And it is precisely this that leads me to say that this new perspective could significantly improve the prospects for freedom.

Abstract interest in liberty or justice is only slightly more common than abstract interest in "bread" or "shoes." To the extent that people are interested in these questions at all, it is because they find them enjoyable, seldom because they find them practical. Abstract theorizing about political matters is, as Brian Barry has pointed out, a "rather gamey taste," like that for chess or bridge. The everyday, plain citizen going about the business of life has far too little time and far too few resources to puzzle over every abstract principle of social organization which the fertile minds of theorists can spin out. To the extent that the average person is aware of political theories at all, libertarian or otherwise, he has a healthy skepticism of them. This is for the practical reason that most theories that call for drastic reordering of the current conditions of life are ridiculous.

To the average person, the conditions of human action are not bifurcated into those employing social means and those involving State action. There is one unified setting in which human action takes place, and individuals act to satisfy their ends by employing all the rule-sanctioned means available to them. In contemporary America, the average person obviously considers the elaborate involvement of government in life to be part of the given conditions of action. Short-circuiting the support for intervention involves a process far more subtle than merely making available abstract arguments—no matter how elegant—to the effect that the free market could, in a counterfactual world, produce better goods and services than those provided by the State.

The current governmental permeation of life was not brought about at the behest of fanatical socialists and communists who convinced people that private property and individual liberty were abstractly detrimental to their interests. Rather, small increases in the scope of government were proposed and supported to the extent that they seemed to coincide with the vested interests of sufficient numbers of individuals in organizable groups. Governmental policies persist to the extent that they continue to coincide with the perceived interests of those citizens who are positioned to impress their interests upon the State.

Robert Poole in Cutting Back City Hall has contributed in a very thoughtful way to the evolution of libertarian attitudes among the public. His work is analogous to that of the apologists for intervention who constantly survey the operations of firms in the free market to discover "market failures," which then become the basis for government action to correct the situation. Poole brings us extensive evidence of "government failures," inefficiencies that unnecessarily reduce the living standards of ordinary people. This being so, Poole's many cost-cutting suggestions are acceptable to almost any thinking citizen—except, perhaps, to a politician or bureaucrat—exactly upon the premises that citizen now holds.

It is because politicians and bureaucrats, no less than persons operating in the market, seek to maximize their own interests, that Poole's study clarifies aspects of reality that are masked by ideological analysis. That is, Poole provides an insight into the wide divergence between the ostensible purposes of government action and the true motivation—to aggrandize the power and wealth of those who constitute and control the government. By pointing out innumerable ways the ostensible purposes can be more cheaply and efficiently realized—at the expense of reduced power and wealth to the bureaucrats themselves—Poole is discrediting politicians more effectively than could be done by concentrating solely on abstract articulations of the value of liberty.

Our current president, Jimmy Carter, and the man likely to be our next president, Ronald Reagan, both owed a considerable measure of their early electoral support to promises to cut back bureaucracy and eliminate waste. Carter failed in that task; indeed, he seems never really to have begun. Reagan may fare no better. Already, Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post has written, some months before the election, that Reagan will not succeed in squeezing waste out of government, partly because he lacks a fully detailed understanding of how pervasive waste is. To prove her wrong, Reagan might pick up a copy of Robert Poole's book. It points the reader to an understanding that merely ideological critiques of government cannot reach.

Getting people to think of the incentive structures that affect the way bureaucrats perform their jobs, and showing how better performance can be attained by altering those incentives, is absolutely necessary to demystify politics. When efforts such as that of Mr. Poole have had the chance to spread a healthy appreciation of the way things work (or in many cases don't work), we shall reach the point where people will no longer be appalled at the thought of introducing incentive programs to make bureaucrats more accountable, as everyone is today accustomed to incentive plans in private business. We can hope for the day when the current of vested interests will be reversed, and bureaucrats will begin to prosper in proportion to their ability to eliminate functions and slash costs. The State could wither from the same causes that now lead bureaucrats to speed its growth.

Jim Davidson is the director of the National Taxpayers' Union and a Viewpoint columnist for REASON. His book The Squeeze was published recently by Summit Books.