Government is not your friend, but it can be improved
I had indeed allowed my lawn to become overgrown and hadn’t noticed because I live hundreds of miles away. Shame on me. Officials were polite and professional, so it was no big deal. I quickly rectified the situation, but found the incident to be revealing. For years, the neighboring property has been in an astounding state of disrepair.
It has debris and an inoperable car in the yard. The building seems to be collapsing. When I sit on my patio drinking wine, rats routinely scurry from the unkempt property past my chair. The situation didn’t garner obvious City Hall attention until neighbors complained about a giant RV that suddenly appeared out front. That’s government in a nutshell.
Cities have voluminous codes to protect health and safety, yet they rarely deal with true public-safety concerns, such as the sprawling homeless encampments and open-air drug markets that have taken over nearby city parks. That takes time and effort. But it’s easy to send a notice to generally responsible residents, who can be counted on to fix problems and pay their fines.
Once, a vicious mutt was roaming our neighborhood. It killed my daughter’s cat. We couldn’t get the animal-control department’s attention. It was too busy dealing with other things, I suppose. Yet that same department could be remarkably efficient, such as the time I got a knock on the door from an animal-control officer after I forgot to renew the license for my housedog.
There’s a reason our forebears referred to federal agents who shut down illegal booze operations as “revenuers.” The government’s main purpose – perhaps it’s sole purpose – is to keep the tax revenue flowing. If you want to get a police agency’s attention, don’t report a crime. Instead, threaten to clamp down on its property seizing powers or start talking about the agency’s pension liabilities.
Yet everyone on the left, right and center seems to support laws that will improve this, that or some other thing. California’s progressive government is perhaps the most obvious offender. Recently, the Newsom administration proudly announced a new electric-vehicle mandate – the same week the state asked people to stop charging EVs because it struggled to keep the grid operating.
People still die in large numbers from drug overdoses within our prison system. That’s also telling. The government cannot keep fentanyl out of the most locked down, tightly controlled environment – yet continues to wage a war on drugs in our broader society. Unless voters say otherwise in November, the state will ramp up yet another war on substances – vaping, menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco.
These are perhaps minor inconveniences in a society that’s still relatively free and prosperous. But the more we empower government, the more we have to put up with abuses. For instance, civil-asset forfeiture gave government the power to grab drug cartels’ proceeds – but ended up giving agencies the power to seize cars and cash owned by ordinary people based merely on allegations of minor drug use.
This unseemly process continues, even though two U.S. Justice Department officials who helped create the program say it has turned into an “evil.” Cops and prosecutors began “using seized cash and property to fund their operations,” wrote John Yoder and Brad Cates, “based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than on an even-handed effort to enforce the law.”
Let’s get back to code enforcement. It’s hard to find anyone who is against city officials clamping down on property owners who let their properties become hazards. Yet the Sacramento Bee reported last week that California cities routinely sue homeowners for code violations and then have a judge appoint a receiver to manage repairs.
A receivership company “is supposed to return homes to their owners after fixing the code violations, but its fees can grow so high that the homeowner cannot afford to pay them, according to people whose properties went into receivership.” The Bee reported on an 80-year-old Berkeley homeowner “stuck with a $1 million bill for upgrades he didn’t want. … Half of the money he owes comes from administrative and legal fees.”
“I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time,” wrote journalist H.L. Mencken. He might be right, but I do believe that public services can improve by rejiggering the incentives and reducing the role of government in their provision. Toward that end, please check out the Free Cities Center, a new website that looks at market-oriented solutions to Western cities’ urban problems.