There’s a lot of talk about socialism these days, and most of it goes around in circles. The reason for that lack of direction is that the term means different things to different people, many of whom have very strong feelings about whatever they think it means.
To some, it simply means social programs, like Social Security and Medicare. To others, it means an economic system in which the “means of production,” such as factories and raw materials, belong to the public as a whole.
If we’re talking about the former, there is not necessarily a conflict with private ownership of businesses in what we call a free enterprise system, or capitalism. In the case of the latter, the government controls the production of goods and services.
To be clear, I’m a capitalist. Like most people, I am in favor of social programs, provided that they actually help people who need it and that they don’t bankrupt the republic in the process.
I won’t pretend to know what those programs should be, what rules should govern them or what level of funding they should require from taxpayers. Distinguished economists disagree vehemently with each other on the subject, so I don’t really see the rest of us coming to any sort of consensus.
When it comes to governmental control of business, on the other hand, I would certainly expect that we could. If we learned nothing else from the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, we should at least remember what happens to economies from which competition has been removed.
My favorite example was the division of Germany into East and West, which provided a rare opportunity to study the effect of one environment versus another, much like studying twins who are separated at birth. You could choose any industry, but being a car guy I like to look at automobiles.
While West Germany was developing international icons of luxury and performance, including Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi and BMW, East Germany produced something called a Trabant. By any standards, they were ugly, unreliable, slow, dirty and unsafe. They lacked such obvious advancements as seatbelts, turn signal indicators and fuel gauges, and produced such clouds of smoke that you could barely see them. You wouldn’t find a fuel door on the outside of the car (look under the hood) but you would find open screws holding the body together.
Here’s the kicker. A new Trabant cost more than a new Mercedes.
For those of you who aren’t car people, or think that it couldn’t happen here, or simply can’t visualize a retail operation in a marketplace without competition, I have another example. It’s a place that most Americans have been to, and a place to which no one wishes to return. It’s the Motor Vehicle Department.
In recent years, at least in my home state of New York, it has become much easier to avoid the place, mostly thanks to the internet. There are still situations, however, that require a personal visit, and I was faced with one of those in early March.
The DMV location had changed since my last trip, but the new place was every bit as inadequate as the previous one. The waiting room was about the size of my office, with chairs around the perimeter which were all taken. Several people were obliged to stand.
It was winter in upstate New York, so everyone was wearing a heavy coat, but it was hot as hell in the waiting room. A couple of times while I was there someone came in, took a number, and left, apparently knowing from experience how to time the wait.
My own wait lasted 40 minutes, during which my only diversion was listening to the conversations between people trying to register vehicles (or whatever) and the DMV employees. Many of those conversations seemed rather personal in nature, but the service windows were right next to the waiting room, and, as I said, I didn’t have anything else to do.
The wait also gave me time to think about the place, how dingy it was, its lack of public restrooms, the cheap plastic chairs, and so on. Although I had tried to pick a day and time that would be less crowded than usual it was still very busy, and yet one of the three windows was closed.
When my turn finally came they asked what I was there for, and then gave me a bunch of forms to fill out, which seemed like something I could have been doing for the past 40 minutes. I was there to get an “enhanced” driver’s license, meaning that it can be used for identification purposes.
That being the case, I thought it was a little odd that they just took my word for my height and eye color. As for my vision, they asked me to read a line on a chart, which had been hanging on the wall in plain sight for the entire time that I had been sitting there with my glasses on.
I not only passed the vision test, I also passed the test where they try to think of some document that you need but don’t have. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
After jumping through all the hoops and handing over $90, I was good to go. Now I just had to wait two weeks for a plastic ID card that any wholesale club could have issued on the spot for free.
Okay, perhaps I’m being a little hard on the DMV. To be fair, the employees were friendly, cheerful, and well-versed in all the bureaucratic red tape that binds the place. They were doing their best in a system they didn’t create.
Nonetheless, that system doesn’t compare well to free enterprise. How do you suppose the DMV might operate differently if you could buy a driver’s license from somebody else?
Competition is not always fun, especially when you are the smaller dog in the fight, but it is amazingly effective at making us all better. To prove that point, I need look no further than the people who read this magazine.
Ever since we took over the publication of Art Materials Retailer 20-some years ago, the competition in the marketplace has been brutal. First it was the chain stores, then the big boxes, and finally the internet. The retailers who survived are faster, more efficient, more capable, and just generally better than they used to be.
Although I live in New York I spend a lot of time in Florida, and a couple of times I have needed to visit the Motor Vehicle Department down there. Surprisingly, I found that it was remarkably nicer and easier to deal with than the ones up north.
Maybe it’s not surprising. It occurs to me that the Florida DMV does actually have someone to compete against. It’s competing against the one up here.
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.