- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2000

The other day, I arrived at the bus stop, where my bus was waiting, and walked up to the door behind two other commuters. They got on, but before I could board, a Chicago Transit Authority fare collector abruptly stepped in front of me, blocked the door, told the driver to close it and drive on, and then, when I asked for an explanation, strode away without a word, even though he apparently had nothing else to do.

The bus was half-empty during rush hour, there was no other bus in sight, and I was not holding things up. But for some strange reason, the guy in the CTA uniform decided he just had to prevent me from spending my money for the benefit of his employer.

When I called the agency's customer service line to report his badge number, the lady who took the information was perfectly polite, and she actually managed to sound surprised by my account. But if you have ever had the pleasure of dealing with urban transit workers, the idea of being abused for no conceivable purpose will strike you as perfectly normal.

The CTA, I am happy to report, has a lot of workers who do their jobs competently and helpfully. Probably a majority, I suspect. It also has many who think of mass transit patrons as an intolerable nuisance that keeps them from getting their paychecks with the least possible exertion.

It's a good day when a driver will advise you which stop you want or a fare collector will tell you where a bus goes. A friend of mine, new to town, ventured into an L station and approached a CTA employee. “Excuse me,” he said politely, “I'm trying to get to State and Randolph.” Came the reply: “Buddy, who the hell's stopping you?”

The government takes all sorts of anti-trust actions to prevent private companies from acquiring monopolies, but the only monopoly truly worth fearing is the one exercised by the government itself. In a democracy, public employees are supposed to be accountable to the people. In fact, their privileged status, safe from competing alternatives, often allows them to be indifferent to, and even contemptuous of, those they theoretically work for.

Our helpful fare collector is a good example. Can you imagine an employee at a movie theater, a hardware store or a fast-food restaurant physically preventing an unoffending customer from entering the establishment during normal business hours to make a purchase? Private companies offering goods and services for sale can't survive if they go out of their way to alienate consumers. Buyers can always go elsewhere.

In the public sector, workers are shielded from that horrid prospect. If you want to take a plane from O'Hare to New York or Dallas or Los Angeles, you have plenty of airlines to choose from. But if you want to take a bus across town, there's only one supplier. And if you don't like it, your local transit provider can get along just fine without you: It gets a subsidy extracted forcibly from the taxpayer at large.

A colleague of mine was recently reminded of the bleak realities of dealing with the public servants whose salaries she helps pay. Her 15-year-old son needed to take a written test for his learner's driving permit. But the licensing office is open only during the hours when she and her husband are unable to get there because of their jobs — with the sole exception of Saturday morning. So she and her son had to go on Saturday and wait two and a half hours for him to take a 20-minute test. The wait was necessitated solely by the refusal of public employees to make themselves available at times convenient to their patrons.

That's how most government offices function. You can get a pizza delivered at 3 a.m., most commodities can be bought in well-appointed stores seven days a week, and computer help lines operate round the clock. You can complete many transactions without ever leaving your home. But federal, state and municipal offices make few of the elementary concessions needed to accommodate ordinary people.

Of course, a lot of people who work in the private sector would also prefer to have their evenings and weekends free. But the nature of competition in the free market is that the consumer is sovereign — and the seller has to serve the consumer's needs or perish.

Government workers claim to serve the public, too, but in too many cases, their actions speak louder. Democracy, we are told, forces the government to respond to the bidding of the people. But it is not the nature of government, democratic or otherwise, to do that on a day-to-day basis. The imbalance of power is too large and too secure. Next time you're dealing with a sullen public employee, you should have no trouble figuring out who is the servant.


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