Tax Officials Lecture About Civility

Steven Greenhut: I’m all for civility, politeness and respect, mind you, but I had to laugh at this civility reminder published by California’s Board of Equalization as part of its newsletter about tobacco and cigarette taxes:

Some observers have noted that civility is decreasing in our society as our lives become more complex. We know that you may find yourself frustrated with the difficulties of the tax law or pressed for time when dealing with our staff. Still, we ask that you treat our employees just as you would like to be treated in a business situation. Any statement or gesture made to a Board of Equalization employee that seems remotely like a threat—even a statement made in jest—will be referred to our Internal Security and Audit Division for investigation.

Frankly, I’d like to know what the board is doing to assure that its employees are behaving in a civil and helpful manner to members of the public, who must fork over their hard-earned cash to these bureaucracies. In my experience, government officials at tax and other agencies (think DMV) tend to act with the special mixture of indifference and officiousness that seems designed to set the public on edge.

I remember one state official who told me how he puts on his officious act when a customer gives him a hard time. He then very coldly but professionally puts as many obstacles in the person’s way, thereby causing enormous frustration. I’ve experienced this myself on a number of occasions, not just at government agencies but with those corporate “customer service” folks who provide no sort of actual service that I can understand.

I’ve interviewed many people who have had to deal with nasty bureaucrats at agencies. The public has to take whatever is dished out.

It’s not the complexity of life that causes individuals to lose their civility, but the endless, mindless bureaucracies and pointless rules that we must follow. The problem in the United States is a variant of the problem faced by citizens in all countries where the government bureaucracies have run amok. There’s endless paperwork, lines, long waits and we’re all dependent on the decisions of the officials, who have great power over us. The beauty of the marketplace is that we have choices. You don’t like Company A, so you go to Company B. With the government, we all must take whatever its bureaucrats dish out. Then many people get frustrated and they become less civil.

And then the bureaucrats lecture us about civility.

NOV. 1

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