Because they are so rare — and I mean unicorn rare — positive bureaucratic experiences stand out in my mind. In 2001, I went into a driver’s-license office in Montgomery County, Pa., and was greeted by a middle-aged man wearing about 40 pieces of Masonic swag (I later learned he was a Catholic!) who asked me what brought me in. I said I needed to trade in a Texas driver’s license for a Pennsylvania license. He gave me a form to fill out, asked me a couple of questions, took my money, and that was that.
Perhaps it was a Masonic plot. But if the Illuminati can get me through the DMV in less than 15 minutes, then bring on the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, and the reptilian shape-shifters, too. I’ve got places to be.
I had a similarly pleasant surprise in Europe last summer. I am that guy who shows up at the airport a minimum of two hours before boarding time, because the only thing I hate more than waiting is being late. The French were threatening to go on strike, as they do weekly, and my hopes for the efficiency of the Italian public sector were not very high. But compared with entering or leaving the United States via JFK, it was a snap. It did not quite make sense — I was asked for my passport about two more times than seemed necessary — but it didn’t take a minute. I had similar experiences in the Netherlands, where one expects such efficiency, and in Spain, where one does not.
Maybe there is something of the old royalist or Napoleonic attitude that survives in Europe, which approaches the matter of bureaucracy with a certain dignity. Whereas their American counterparts alternate between acting like they’re hustling $6 appletinis at TGI Friday’s (“Hello, my name is Caitlyn, and I’ll be taking care of you today. Are we ready for our rectal probe?”) and acting like they’re going to shoot you in the face (Hello, TSA!) the front-line agents of European bureaucracy are aloof and maybe just a little bit contemptuous, but efficient. There is a sense of pride in position, something that we just don’t have in the United States, where being an assistant vice principal is socially one step down from being a rodeo clown.
(And, no, I didn’t tell Ma I was a newspaper editor; she thought I was a piano-player in a whorehouse.)
There are weird ideological fault lines in American public life: People such as Barack Obama, whose own children would never be expected to forsake Sidwell Friends and darken the doorway of a public school, care much more deeply about the “public” part of “public education” than they do about the “education” part, hence their hysterical reaction to the nomination of school-reformer Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. No one seriously doubts that many students, especially poor children from poor families in poor neighborhoods, would be better served if their parents had some real choice about where they were educated — including the choice to attend the private schools that Democratic elected officials so often choose for their own children — but there is some reason to believe that school-choice programs would erode what they call the “public” nature of education, by which they mean the monopolistic nature of our schools. A variation on that (familiar to any libertarian) is the fact that our progressive friends get so worked up about purported abuses in privately run prisons; the same kinds of abuses (and worse) exist in the publicly run institutions — consider the many horrors of Rikers Island, where not long ago a homeless veteran was roasted to death by unionized government employees — but private prisons present the Left with a special horror, because progressives recognize the need to lock people in cages from time to time (for, say, the crime of holding nonconformist views on global warming) but object deeply to the profit motive.
From kindergarten to solitary confinement: Fine, so long as you don’t interact with the private sector at some point during the course of that life sentence.
Though conservatives are sometimes tempted to simply reverse that attitude, their high regard for some parts of the public sector (military, police, etc.) generally keeps them from going absurdly far down that road. But conservative respect for the gun-toting and uniform-wearing parts of the public sector has its drawbacks, too: Are we so sure that the unhappy people of Ferguson, Mo. or Baltimore or Los Angeles are entirely wrong about the character and efficacy of their police agencies? Are we quite sure that the Pentagon’s procurement agents are all as pious as St. Francis?
Our progressive friends who demand a Scandinavian scope of government have very little to say about achieving a Scandinavian standard of government.
If we are to have a political exchange that amounts to something more than an imaginary exchange between two polar positions held by almost no one in the 21st century United States (Bismarckian étatism vs. Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, or Thomas Hobbes vs. Ayn Rand) then we have to pay some attention not only to the size and the scope of the state’s agencies but also to whether they are any good at what we ask them to do. Moralistic egalitarian arguments for a uniform system of public education will never be persuasive to people who know about Atlanta, or to people who are familiar with the stark differences in school quality that can be seen by walking a mile, or to people who know about the “rubber rooms” of New York. Our progressive friends who demand a Scandinavian scope of government have very little to say about achieving a Scandinavian standard of government, or even a Canadian one, as though competence could simply be assumed in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. They talk about the postwar years as though the only thing that has changed since the Eisenhower administration is the top marginal income-tax rate.
Americans do not much trust their government, for good reason. And this has immediate, important real-world consequences. For example: It can be difficult to distinguish between hysteria about Islam and well-founded concern about Muslim immigration into the United States, but who seriously thinks that our public institutions are up to the job of properly investigating tens of thousands (or more) refugees, asylum-seekers, and ordinary immigrants every year? If Donald Trump’s temporary order seems to you unreasonable, ask yourself what the next-best option is and how much confidence we should have in it. The U.S. government has been flubbing the problem of radicals crossing our borders since Lee Harvey Oswald was simmering in Minsk. How many terrorists and school shooters were already on the authorities’ radar, and had been for years, before they committed spectacular atrocities? A half-dozen examples come to mind.
That is not confidence-inspiring, and Americans do not lack faith in their public institutions because they listen to too much talk radio or read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. They lack confidence in their public institutions because they go to the driver’s-license office from time to time, because they see disability fraud and Medicaid fraud all around them, because they know crooked cops and incompetent teachers, because their memories may be short but are not so short that they have forgotten the Clintons exist.
Generally speaking, I walk into a government office a Bill Buckley conservative and walk out ready to join a militia in Idaho. My temperament, fortunately for the republic, is not everyone’s. But we should not underestimate how effective competence is as an antidote to political radicalism and angry populism of either the left-wing or right-wing variety. No one ever will be elected president for asking why it takes two hours for an American to get back into his own country through JFK but six minutes to pass through Barajas in Madrid, or why a law-abiding regular guy has to provide a birth certificate, Social Security card, and additional photo ID to go about his ordinary business as a citizen while we cannot enforce the law against illegal aliens.
But maybe we should ask.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.