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A Career Working Behind Enemy Lines

Mises Daily: Friday, September 19, 2008 by

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My career at the Arizona Department of Transportation (AzDOT) wasn't planned from the start. I had some academic training in economics, but no background or training in transportation. As a libertarian, I had an instinctual aversion to government. However, after a lengthy dose of unemployment, I broke down and took what I felt would be a temporary position with AzDOT in 1976.

My suspicions about government were confirmed early on in my employment. One of my first assignments was to analyze the "need" for commuter airline service subsidies in Arizona. I went into this study with virtually no knowledge of the industry. I was stunned to discover that so little of the cost for the service was paid for by the passengers. The benefit/cost ratio and rate of return for every option under consideration were negative. Upon presenting these findings to AzDOT management, along with my recommendation that the state not get involved in such a venture, I was rebuked. My task, I was informed, was not to ascertain whether tax dollars would be committed to this program, but to advise on how they ought to be dispensed. "The door to the subsidy program is already open," said the division director. "Our job is to shovel the money out."

With more candor than most of his successors in my 32 years with the agency, this director acknowledged the inefficiency and inequity of the program. "The political reality is that the federal money is going to be spent," he said. "Better that it be spent in Arizona than in some other state. Besides, the intended recipient has political connections, so we have no choice."

My first thought was that I had to get out. How could I maintain my personal integrity within such a corrupt organization? Under further consideration, though, I thought, how could I abandon the field to the sole possession of those ideologically committed to bigger government? Wouldn't the battle for smaller government benefit from having someone working behind "enemy lines?" I decided that the answer to this question was "yes" and determined to give it a go.

As an eyewitness with over three decades of inside, close-up observation, I can assure readers that every libertarian criticism that has been leveled at government is true. But ideologues devoted to big government comprise only a small minority of those occupying public-sector positions. The rest are almost invariably unwilling to lift a finger on behalf of restraining the growth of government. Some rationalize their inaction on the grounds of self-interest. A bigger government most likely will mean a bigger paycheck. Others exhibit an inordinate fear of retribution (employees on the "merit" system are virtually impossible to fire) to justify not sticking their necks out. The vast majority are, like the vast majority of the population, oblivious to the issues, alternatives, and outcomes of the agency's actions. Finally, a significant minority are "dead wood" — personal energy conservers who do as little as possible, exploiting the awareness that getting rid of them is more work than management is willing to undertake.

This is not to say that I was entirely on my own in the battle from within. From time to time I received invaluable assistance from coconspirators whose only desired reward was that I keep their names out of it. Given the fairly steady stream of criticism, threats, and attempted (but ultimately, ineffective) retaliation I experienced over the years, I can appreciate their reluctance to take credit for their contributions. But taxpayers should know that there are some good people on the inside. I am maintaining my contacts with these covert confederates and will be using their assistance in my new role as a former insider.

"The door to the subsidy program is already open," said the division director. "Our job is to shovel the money out."

Over 200 years ago, British statesman Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." The evil of oppressive government depends upon the absence of action by those who would oppose it. My experience in AzDOT persuaded me of the wisdom of Burke's observation. The growth of government in transportation is intellectually indefensible. It promotes neither efficiency nor equity. It proceeds only because there is insufficient opposition. Proponents and beneficiaries of this growth of government rely heavily upon the ignorance of the general population and a sense of hopelessness among opponents to deter action against their schemes. My experience, though, indicates that ignorance and hopelessness are unwarranted.

To encourage a sense of hopelessness, the proponents of bigger government line up impressive coalitions of interest groups, lobbyists, and media to work with the bureaucracy on ways to extract more taxes and dispense more spending. At the same time, they attempt to marginalize critics as "lone voices" challenging an entrenched orthodoxy. To try to ensure ignorance, distorted claims alleging the dire need for more government, its wondrous benefits, and the absence of viable alternatives are disseminated to the general public. While this presents a formidable force for expanding government, it is not invulnerable.

One of my assignments in the 1980s was to prepare a report for a potential Tucson–Los Angeles passenger rail study. Inasmuch as Amtrak appeared to be demonstrating that rail passenger service was a dying industry, I asked why we should expect such a proposed service to be warranted. I was told that the governor's office had requested the study because it had received a "flood" of mail on the topic that was running two-to-one in favor. Wanting to fully document this aspect of the issue, I contacted the governor's office and requested copies of this mail for inclusion in the appendix of my report. They happily complied. Two days later, I received an envelope from the governor's office with these copies. There were three letters. Two urged the establishment of this service. One argued against it.

That a total of three letters could be described as a "flood" can only mean one of two things:

  1. so few citizens actually make the effort to contact their government that getting any mail seems like a lot;

  2. brazen lying is a tactic that usually works.

One could make the case for either interpretation. Regardless of which seems more plausible to you, a hint on how to thwart government expansion is revealed. The loud opposition of just a few individuals may seem like a juggernaut to a bureaucrat attempting to implement an ill-considered plan. Better still if you can expose the weak support for the plan, both in terms of the claimed number of people behind it and the poor value of the suggested operation. My report highlighted the real paucity of public support and the projected high cost and low passenger counts expected from the service. That train never left the station.

The ammunition we need to expose the poor performance of government is out there. Ironically, the lust for federal aid guarantees this. The competition to get one's snout in the federal trough is intense. Consequently, the federal government requires applicants for aid to prepare a raft of data outlining their cases for why they should be favored for the disbursement of funds. These data are voluminous and often complex. The reports containing them are difficult reading. Nevertheless, these documents contain nuggets of information that can help overcome the ignorance barrier.

Take for example Phoenix's bid for federal aid for its light-rail system. Phoenix was required to submit both an annual report and an environmental-impact statement. The annual report was required to show forecast ridership and expenses. Buried in this report was the fact that the incremental cost per passenger boarding was over $13. The average fare per boarding was under 60 cents. Thus, the touted "affordability" of this service was achieved by having nonriders pay 95% of the cost.

The Driver by Garet Garrett: The famed voice of Jeff Riggenbach reads the great novel of capitalist fortune from the era of private railroads.

The findings from the environmental-impact statement were even more interesting. Despite being publicly advertised as a way of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, the report prepared by the transit agency had to concede that the new light-rail system would actually increase both congestion and air pollution, although not by enough to trigger federal sanctions.

Obtaining and using this ammunition is, for the most part, getting easier. Many of the reports are posted on web sites. The Freedom of Information Act assures access to documents that aren't posted. Software tools like spreadsheets, databases, and word-processing applications enable us to extract more information from the data we can get our hands on. It is feasible for one person, like myself, to pierce the veil of ignorance and expose the lies and distortions emanating from big-government propaganda.

My methods can be replicated. I hope to encourage others to take up the challenge — including the next generation of persons willing to aid the cause of liberty by going behind enemy lines.