Earlier this month, a mother of seven kids died in a jail in Philadelphia. A judge had locked her up because she hadn't paid a bill of roughly $2,000. The bill was from the government for fines and also costs of running the criminal justice system. Items included $60 for county law enforcement and $8 for a court computer program.
This tragedy is the latest casualty of the pay your own way approach to government, which is sweeping the country.
In recent years, many local and state governments have been charging people for a range of services most of us think of as public. These include street lights, search and rescue missions, ambulances, fire protection, as well as the justice system. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, the city turned off many street lights -- then made residents pay $125 for each light they wanted back on. In Escanaba, Michigan, a homeless mother was charged for court-ordered help for her son -- even though the help took the form of locking him up.
If Kafka were around to design a plan for governance, the result would be this pay-your-own-way approach. When government tries to make some citizens pay for services we all rely on, the results are at best bizarre, at worst sinister. There is no fair way for services to be delivered publicly, in the name of public safety, but paid for privately.
Citizens who can't pay for government services they or their family members use are forced to consume more government services. When the mom in Michigan couldn't pay the tab for her son's time in juvenile detention, she was thrown in jail -- then given a bill for her own jail stay.
Adult inmates are routinely billed for the cost of their time behind bars -- even though they aren't there for their own rehabilitation. We, through our court system, have determined that their presence in the free world threatens us. Some jails may help themselves to payment directly from inmates' wallets when they arrive or from the limited funds inmates' families send to them. Not all items the inmates use are included in the basic room-and-board charge, however; some jails charge separately for essentials like toilet paper.
Sometimes, failing to pay on time for a so-called public service means you won't get it -- no matter what is at stake. Several years ago, a home in Tennessee caught fire. The firefighters refused to help because the owners hadn't paid the $75 annual fee for service. They refused to help even when the owners offered any price. The house kept burning until there was almost nothing left.
In the strange new emerging order of things, money buys desirable services from the government; the fire department answers your call or it doesn't. Money helps you avoid undesirable services. In California, for instance, some inmates with means may buy their way out of dangerous jails by paying for rooms at nicer facilities.
Does it go almost without saying that this pay-your-own-way approach to governance hurts the poor, in whose ranks the young, elderly, disabled, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and single moms are disproportionately represented? It does.
But pay-your-own-way effects a transformation more fundamental than deepening the current divide between haves and have nots. It turns us all into customers of our government rather than citizens of cities, counties, and states. We are not customers the way we are with private business, however, where we can choose to buy or not. We're coerced. When government is selling, we have to buy. And if we don't buy, we may pay an even higher price in the form of our house burning down or our property being repossessed.
Whether you think government should be limited or robust, you should be concerned about the new arrangement in which government services are available, for a price. A government that removes a troubled child from his home -- whether the parents want the child removed or not -- and then sends the parents a bill for removal costs is not limited. Government that has to rely on hounding parents with disabilities to turn over their Social Security checks to pay that bill is not providing a true social safety net.
This government is more train robber than sheriff, one that masks itself as a public authority, tells us what we need and then holds us hostage until we pay for it. Keeping core public services public, both in provision and payment, is the best way to ensure that government acts on behalf of citizens, not coerced customers.