Bit by Bit, He's Selling off His Government

May 12, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

INDIANAPOLIS — Asked by the mayor how he is getting to the airport, the visitor says he'll hail a cab. No you won't, says the mayor. This city has made it illegal for cabs to cruise for fares.


That is what government does. It abets ''transfer seeking'' -- the use of government power to transfer wealth from one group to another, in this case from weak taxi competitors to the three companies that control most of the market and can afford sophisticated radio dispatching systems.

The city has set taxi rates high, so taking a cab to the airport can cost twice as much as a stretch limousine. Mayor Stephen Goldsmith wants the cab market opened and cab operators freed to charge less than the rates set by government. Who is this anarchist?

Most mayors, if they cannot brag about something, change the subject. ''We have an awful bus system,'' says Mayor Goldsmith. He would like to open bus service to competition. However, the federal government, playing the transfer-seeking game, mandates that any municipal transit worker ''negatively impacted'' by such competition must be paid six years of full pay and benefits.

This city, 800,000 patriots clustered around war memorials (Hoosiers never forget a fight), has 30 percent fewer non-public safety employees than it did three years ago when Mr. Goldsmith, a Republican of libertarian stripe, came to City Hall and learned that a city warehouse held about 40 tons of chalk for softball field lines -- enough to chalk a field with the bases 110 miles apart.


Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and governments gotta behave weirdly.


Well, some bureaucrats will spend any leftover money on lots of anything, lest they get a smaller and governments gotta behave weirdly.

budget next year. And government purchasing systems often are so cumbersome, bureaucrats order too much lest they run out.

Want to buy some chalk? At about the time the chalk mountain was found, the city began spray-painting softball lines because it is 40 percent cheaper.

Mayor Goldsmith put street-repair work out to private bids but provided a consultant to help the city repair shop bid.

It won, having suddenly discovered that what previously required eight workers on two trucks could be done by four on one.

The mayor also sacked most of the Republican patronage ''supervisors.'' Republicans, having controlled City Hall since 1967, are much of the fat being cut.

''Everything can be sold or submitted to competition,'' he says, ''except police and fire services.''

The counting of the parking-meter coins was contracted out. The collecting of the coins will be next. Window washing at city buildings, microfilming, sewer building, all have been privatized. A huge waste-water treatment plant has been put under private management, which will save taxpayers $65 million over five years.

Mr. Goldsmith is campaigning for public-school choice, noting that only 40 cents of every education dollar gets to the classroom and that schools, like other providers of services, will be improved by having to compete for customers.

But he does not want government to wither away entirely. Twelve years as a prosecutor taught him that there are some DTC people, usually between ages 15 and 30, who are nasty and need locking up, in new prisons: ''Most of the serious offenders ++ we're catching have been arrested 12, 13 times. We are not failing to catch them, we're just not keeping them.''

He cites James Q. Wilson, the UCLA political scientist frequently quoted by the new breed of mayors: ''The benefits of work must exceed the costs of work by more than the benefits of crime exceed the costs of crime.''

Incarceration raises the cost of crime, low taxes decrease the cost of work. This is not complicated.

He favors delivering food and many other municipal services to poor neighborhoods through churches and other institutions that exist to transmit values. This gives heartburn to American Civil Liberties Union ''establishment of religion'' fetishists, which is an ancillary benefit.

Cities, he says, would be better off if the federal and state governments, instead of churning out grants and supervision and inefficiencies, would just keep half the taxes they take from cities and mail the rest back. ''There is no value added by additional people passing dollars around.''

Slender, laconic and ironic, his manner expresses his politics of minimalism. ''Make government as small as possible and devolve it to as small a geographic base as possible,'' he says, adding, almost wistfully, ''I could be a really good mayor of 1,000 people.''

Perhaps, but the nation's 12th-largest city is pleased to have him rummaging through its government, looking for things to sell.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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