Conservative Praises Inefficiency, Inconvenience

One thing that’s often hard to get across in writing, and even to speaking to people, is just how far out of the mainstream the conservative movement is, even on taxes. After all, no one likes paying taxes, or fees, or fines, to the government, but when you can actually strip away the emotion and the cognitive dissonance a lot of people have about these things, you generally can come away with an understanding that they’re necessary for things people like. No one likes paying the fees to register a motor vehicle, for example, but if you really try, you can get them to acknowledge that maintaining roads costs money, and that that money has to come from somewhere. Ditto for traffic fines; no one likes getting caught or having to pay the fine, but no one wants people driving down highways at 90 MPH or speeding through neighborhoods, so some sort of punishment that actually stings has to be put in place to ensure compliance with the rules (although that’s not counting for people who simply think it’s different when they do it, obviously). Now though, Eric Felten actually makes the case for making dealing with government fees as difficult and inconvenient as possible. He starts out by excoriating red-light cameras, a topic that’s probably best left for another post (for the life of me I can’t understand how the notion that people have a right to go through intersections after the light turns red without getting caught for it became so widespread), but goes on to complain about…parking meters:

Take Montgomery County, Md. Last month it started a new program that lets motorists pay at parking meters with their cellphones. How easy! How convenient! How civilized! No more digging around the ashtray for dimes and quarters. No more pestering passersby to change a dollar. Of course, when you have to scrounge for coins to feed the meter, you’re painfully aware of just how much the parking regime is costing you. Not so with the mobile-phone parking app. According to a demonstration on the Web site of the company powering the service, you just key in how long you’d like to leave your car, and you’re on your way. The pesky question of how much you’ve just paid doesn’t come up.No doubt you can find out later from your online statement, and surely there are some savvy and well-organized folks who do. Yet for most of us the cost fades toward invisibility, and that’s when fees go to town. Policymakers have long understood that the less visible—or “salient,” to use the economist’s term of art—a tax is, the easier it is to raise. Which is why Milton Friedman, looking for ways the federal government could collect more money during World War II, recommended the creation of income tax withholding (an innovation he was not proud of). It’s also why “value-added taxes” act like steroids when it comes to bulking up government.

What I find interesting about this isn’t so much the comical level to which Felton takes his anti-government beliefs (the parking regime? Seriously man?), bu rather, how the examples he cites and the effect thereof mostly take apart his arguments themselves. What Felten has basically discovered is that people don’t so much hate cost as they hate hassle. It’s true that people hate dealing with parking meters, or waiting in line at toll booths, but it’s not so much the cost of a parking space they mind so much as it’s the inconvenience factor. Whether it’s the inconvenience of having to find spare change to pay parking meters or the burden of looking at/paying a bill as a whole, as opposed to splitting it into increments, the basic takeaway is that people are perfectly willing to pay more for parking spaces, or tolls, or whatever, so long as it’s more convenient. Indeed, it’s odd to see someone who I imagine probably fancies himself a free-market champion complaining that people are willing to pay more in exchange for something, in this case, convenience.

What this really is is an example of how exactly conservatives are very much out of the mainstream. Conservatives like Felten hate government, don’t much care for public services, but to the extent they do, really don’t like paying for them. I very much doubt that Felten objects to having public roads, or places to park, for example, he just doesn’t think he should have to pay the cost of providing those roads or parking spaces, or pick up any of the opportunity cost that goes along with him occupying a parking space. To that end, he imagines that a lot of people are like him, but it turns out they’re not. They’re more or less ok with paying for parking spaces, they just don’t like how inconvenient it is to pay a parking meter. Make it more convenient, and they’re perfectly fine with it. So fine, in fact, they’re willing to pay higher fees. And people who can pay a bill in increments find it more manageable than paying in one larger lump sum. But conservatives like Felten hate government, have built an entire political movement around hating government, and think other people should hate government too. But it turns out that most people don’t really hate government, so long as their routine interactions with it are convenient and at least somewhat pleasent. To that end, Felten thinks we ought to deliberately make routine interaction with government as inconvenient as possible, simply so that more people will hate government. It’s like that old joke that Republicans spend their time complaining that government doesn’t work, and when they elected they get straight to proving themselves right. Only this is an actual conservative really writing that government should be deliberately inconvenient so that more people will agree with him.