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Those Threatening “Customers”

May 31, 2013 in Economics

By Peter G. Klein


I spent a lovely morning at the local office of the Department of Motor Vehicles. These are uniformly horrible places with long waits, surly employees, and arcane rules and procedures, and it’s not unusual for “customers” to get angry as well as frustrated.

I noticed this sign posted on the counter: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone because of irrational or threatening behavior.” It’s obvious why you might see such a sign at a DMV office. But what’s remarkable is that you never, ever see anything like this at a commercial enterprise. To be sure, customer service varies from store to store. But customers are, after all, customers, and it’s in the merchant’s interest to treat customers well. With government provision of goods and services, of course, the reverse is true: the “customers” have no choice where to go, and from the supplier’s point of view, each customer adds to its cost. As Mises noted in Bureaucracy, in government enterprises, “[t]he criterion of good management is not the approval of the customers resulting in an excess of revenue over costs but the strict obedience to a set of bureaucratic rules. The supreme rule of management is subservience to such rules.” For the DMV, all that matters is making sure people wanting license plates or drivers licenses have filled out the proper forms, brought the proper documentation, waited in the proper lines, and behaved in the proper manner. Do the rules make sense? Do they increase the satisfaction of the customer? Who cares! They’re not “customers” anyway.

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