Fast Food Government

I was speaking with a co-worker the other day as she explained her issues with her new mortgage lender. It seems that her previous lender sold her loan, and now it has taken several months and multiple phone calls to get her payment plan set back up the way she wanted it before. It occurred to me awhile later that her frustration explains an awful lot about why liberals so often choose government over the private sector, and it has a lot to do with why we’re such fast-food junkies in this country.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that government is preferred by liberals because of the franchise phenomenon. A “franchise” is a business that offers a consistently similar service in multiple locations (although often, single-location businesses attempt to use franchise techniques). Examples include H&R Block for tax services, Jiffy Lube for automotive care, Chili’s for family dining and of course every health-nut’s whipping boy McDonald’s for fast food. In particular, government is reminiscent of fast food.

Think about it this way: Most people agree that fast food is unhealthy and the quality is relatively poor, especially when compared to home-cooked meals or fine dining. However, there are three basic components of fast food that keep people coming back:

  1. It’s cheaper than other restaurant types, such as family restaurants or fine dining.
  2. It’s easier than cooking at home (that is, doing it yourself).
  3. While the quality is low, it’s “good enough” and it’s very consistent across each store.

I don’t think the makers of “Fast Food Nation” had that in mind when they made their film (it being a sarcastic and overly-melodramatic farce about the fast food industry). However, a more appropriate monicker for modern government programs couldn’t exist. Government programs cost less to the person using them (even if they’re actually more costly than the private sector–tax dollars subsidize them). Since often the only requirement is to fill out some forms to determine eligibility, government programs are often easier than exploring the private sector and figuring out for oneself what options are best. Finally, while most people recognize the relatively poor quality and limited choices offered, at least it’s consistent across the country or state providing it.

Social Security is an excellent example of this. Even though Social Security generally provides only poverty-level retirement income and a conservatively invested 401(k) or IRA provides far superior retirement income, many people don’t put much or any money away in retirement accounts. They’d rather depend on government (which is going to force them to participate, anyway) than try and figure out some kind of retirement plan on their own, even with the help of a financial adviser.

The consistency of government services, mediocre as they are, is what attracts people to them. While the private sector may provide services better and usually (in reality) cheaper than government, one provider may offer fantastic services while another offers terrible services and five more range from great to mediocre. Each offers its products at a different price based upon its offerings and the market. Beyond that, each one has different offerings that they have tailored to fit the needs of their preferred client type as well as their own cost structure and expertise.

This is, of course, the value of the private sector: Offering various products and different levels of service at different prices. This optimizes the system for different groups of people with different needs, wants and values. It ensures the largest number of people are satisfied. Take car insurance: One person may only have car insurance for the express purpose of that it’s required by law in that state. Another person may have car insurance because it’s required by their auto loan lender. Yet another person may have car insurance because they can’t afford to be without a car for more than a day or two if they’re in an accident. Each of these people have different needs, and each car insurance company offers different products to fit some or all of those needs. Each car insurance company offers a different level of service and different prices based upon that customer’s needs and the risks associated with that customer. A careful consumer picks and chooses based upon careful research and matching of their personal requirements to the insurer, but often people simply go with the lowest price or the company their family has been using for generations or the one with the cutest advertising.

It’s no wonder some people are turned-off by the private sector. It’s the same reason people are wary of trying the new local restaurant: Sometimes it’s really fantastic or just plain good, but often enough it’s mediocre or bad. How many times has your family tried to decide on what’s for dinner, choosing a franchise restaurant over a local restaurant or a dinner at home? At least with government people see relative consistency, even if that consistency is mediocre at best. And who’s more likely to be burned by a bad actor in the private sector? People buying products and services at the low-end of the scale, of course. Whether it’s a car, an HMO plan or a mortgage lender, low-end products generally offer far less to the buyer, making them far more likely to fail the consumer’s expectations.

So when people choose these lesser options, they sometimes get burned, or at least perceive they’ve been burned. This builds up a resentment for private sector business. I purchased the New iPad when it came out (I just made the pre-order cut-off), and to go with it I ordered a case with a built-in Bluetooth keyboard. I didn’t order the high-end, leather-encased $80 model from a Big Box store, however; I chose a pleather $30 item from a discounter. The case arrived about five days after the iPad, and after charging the keyboard, I discovered some of the keys didn’t work. After fiddling with it a bit, the non-working keys started working. The next day, they failed again, and again after a short time they started working. On the third day, they failed and never came back. Finally, I contacted the vendor to return the case. Lesson learned: Even if it’s not real leather, buy a name-brand.

ASIDE: As I was writing this, the vendor I ordered the case from offered a refund, with no need to return the defective item. Imagine a government doing something like that without a court ordering them to do it. Score one for the private sector!

The problem for many people is that they can’t afford to buy the high end model, so they continue buying low-end product. The reason I bought the low-end case is that I’m stretching my finances just to buy the iPad, so I wanted to save on the case. It’s a bit like buying a new luxury car and then putting on cheap tires to save a couple bucks. I can afford to buy the name brand and have a decent case, but many people can’t and this leaves a poor taste in their mouth about private sector business (or conversely, they save for a high-end product but it doesn’t meet their expectations). So rather than seeing the value of the private sector and its many choices and options, they see a stream of low-end products and think, “Gosh, the government ought to do somethingTM about this.”

So a politician offers them a government solution. It could be socialized medicine. It could be Social Security. It could be regulations. There are numerous programs, projects and administrations that exist to either limit choices or provide something that the private sector could otherwise or already does supply. Some laws and regulations or programs just limit the options available from the private sector without providing anything as a substitute.

Sometimes that last one is a good thing (snake oil salesman and used car dealers have a reputation for a reason, after all), but often enough the regulations enacted simply stifle product innovation or increase the cost of producing a product. One need simply look at the relative cost for a new car today compared to before the implementation of the first safety standards in the 1950s and ’60s. Certainly some of those regulations are a good thing (I wouldn’t drive a car without seat belts, for example), but many simply increase the cost of cars. Airbags are nice, but they aren’t a necessary safety feature in all accidents the way seat belts are. Daytime running lights increase both the cost of the vehicle from the start and (since the lamps are lit more often) increase the cost of operating the vehicle. These regulations have lifted new cars from being something that was once affordable and attainable to anyone with a halfway decent job if they saved for awhile, to something that is now virtually unattainable to anyone below middle class status.  Most now even require at least upper-middle class incomes to really be affordable as “new”. Governments standardizing in law or regulation items that were once features prevents existing businesses or new entrants from offering low-cost solutions, pushing people out of the new car market.

It’s not that government is any good at making its programs and agencies work well. It’s the consistency of government options that keeps people coming back to government solutions. Just as fast food is almost always the same no matter what store you visit, so too does government offer the same type of mediocre solution when liberals choose government over self-reliance or private sector solutions.

The really interesting part is when the people using a government program find that it doesn’t meet their expectations. Instead of a fantastic solution to all of their personal ills, they discover it’s just one more mediocre solution no better than most of the private sector solutions they rejected. Soon enough, there are calls for “Reform!” as the programs fail to meet anyone’s expectations. So politicians increase the program’s scope without really solving any of its systemic problems, and because it’s “free” (or at least, costs less to the user), there’s no impetus to get off the government program and choose a private sector solution. The cycle continues on and on with expansion, failure, “Reform!”, expansion and renewed failure as the national debt mounts higher and higher.

It’s a cycle that builds dependency, reduces competitiveness and limits options.  The offerings are usually bad.  The expectations are always far above what is eventually produced.  It stinks all the way around, and people clamor for more.

Thank you for choosing Fast Food Government. Would you like economic stagnation with that?