Recently I was invited by the Texas Department of Agriculture to participate in a customer satisfaction survey. Let me preface my article by saying that all the folks at the TDA I have ever had dealings with have been wonderful people. They have been courteous, knowledgeable, helpful and responsive. However, I would not ever want to get cross-ways with any one of them. Mostly the survey was checking boxes: Was the staff you dealt with courteous and knowledgeable? Strongly Agree. Given a choice, would you continue to do business with the TDA? Of course not. What person likes being told what to do? At the end of the survey I was invited to type out any remarks. I obliged. Here it is:
Most of us want the same thing: clean air, clean water, rich soil, untainted food, lots of bees, healthy fish, healthy kids, long lives. These could be called “ends”. As to the ends, let us assume there is very little disagreement. The ways people choose to go about achieving those ends are called “means”. Now, there are two basic categories of means: voluntary, or bottom-up, and coerced, or top-down. That’s it.
The Texas Department of Agriculture is by nature an institution of coercion. All of your work is done at gunpoint. Yes, you may be removed from the gun by a few degrees of separation, affording you the illusion that the gun has nothing to do with you. There are judges and sheriffs and court orders and subpoenas and masses of paperwork between you and the gun, insulating you, and making you feel that you aren’t the one holding the gun. But the gun is still there. Without it you’ve got nothing. You may not ever have seen it that way before, but behind all that you do there is a badge and a gun. Here’s a scenario: You fine a business owner (never mind the regulatory infraction for now); she refuses to pay; you attempt to shut her down; she refuses to shut down; you send people with guns to force her to shut down; sieze her property and lock her doors; she resists; the people with guns that you sent shoot her. She is dead. You are still sitting in your office or your pickup truck, saying to yourself; how unfortunate. If she had only complied. These rules are for everyone’s good. It is her fault. She should have complied. There is no blood on my hands. This is the price you pay for civilization. It’s just how it works.
I ask: could it have gone down another way? Is this really “civilized”? Just because the business model, so to speak, has been normalized; just because the model transcends every other industry out there; and just because very few people question it, does that make it right?
To belabor the point: there are really only two types of regulation: voluntary and coerced. Voluntary institutions, (certifications, industry society memberships, BBB, Angie’s List, Underwriter’s Laboratories, Consumer
Reports, Chambers of Commerce, arbitration agencies, etc.) are more effective as regulatory mechanisms, than coerced institutions (licenses and fines and top-down regulation). They could be called bottom-up regulation, or peer- and consumer-driven regulation. The punishments resultant from these inherently voluntary mechanisms can be quite severe, as anyone who has ever suffered lost business due to a dent in reputation or a big screw-up will attest. They carry with them fewer unintended consequences; the tend not to harm the little guy disproportionately.
You can provide excellent customer service until you are blue in the face, but at the end of the day, you are really just a smiley-faced enforcer. You have the power to levy fines and put hard-working people out of business for infractions for which there is no victim. You have the ultimate power of the gun for the stubbornly non-compliant. The little guy doesn’t have the resources that the big guy has in order to maintain compliance. Therefore it is always the little guy who gets hurt. How convenient for the big guy. Your very existence is a barrier to entry, crowding out new entrants into the industry. These new entrants are, in proportion to incumbents, quite often minorities and comparatively poor. Therefore the policies you enforce are racist and discriminatory, as they disproportionately harm the poor and minorities.
A license is really just a permission slip from the State saying we, your overlords, grant you permission to do business in the geographical territory over which we claim jurisdiction. Don’t you step out of line or we will shut you down. Doesn’t matter that you say it gently and with a smile. Doesn’t matter that you provide snappy “customer service”. Take a look at who benefits from your enforcement and then take a look at who is harmed.
If our society truly cared about the environment, and the bees, and the fishes, and the water, then we would look more closely at the mechanisms that actually work, and we would abolish the TDA, among other institutions.
I have no problem with what you are trying to achieve; I have a problem with how you do it and how you get paid. You’re a great bunch of folks, with real concern for the problems that really matter. Your expertise, skill, compassion and sincerity would better serve the Green Industry, the customers who consume their services, the society as a whole and the environment, by getting out of the force business and applying your high levels of intelligence to the task of figuring out how to achieve the ends we all agree upon through means other than the barrel of a gun.
You may wish to counter with similar scenario-based arguments, and I welcome them and the resultant debate and discussion. Your examples may range from the little old widow to the itinerant worker to the polluter who has already done the damage, so now what? Let’s pick them apart. Let’s have the conversation. I don’t want a single one of you to be out of a job. What I want is for you to help re-tool the industry so that institutionalized coercion is eliminated as an option, and we can all truly start calling ourselves “civilized” for the first time.