I haven’t seen any polling on this, but if Mitt Romney wants to make this election about whether we need more cops, firefighters, and teachers I think Barack Obama ought to accept the invitation.

Of course the real hard-core Randian libertarian Teahadis think it’s a good thing if a schoolteacher loses her job and has to become a stripper – since, after all, by definition private-sector employment is productive while public-sector employment is unproductive – but Mitt’s welcome to that 25% of the vote.

Yes, even on that framing Romney would get more than 25%; in addition to the government-haters he’d also pick up the racist-nativist-homophobe-obscurantist-theocrat vote that is now the GOP base. But that still doesn’t get him much past 40%.

In admitting that smaller government means less public services, Romney has committed a gaffe in Michael Kinsley’s sense: he has inadvertently told the truth. Romney’s less honest (or less tone-deaf) co-partisans – Scott Walker, for example – usually pretend they can cut public budgets by eliminating useless “bureaucrats.”

Here’s the Romney quote:

“He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Update Of course it’s true that there are ways of getting crime control, firefighting, and teaching done with fewer people. The police are only starting to adapt to social and technical facts (everyone equipped with a camera connected to the Net) that could allow the “crowdsourcing” of much of police information-gathering. Changing construction codes have greatly reduced the need for urban firefighters, and the Fire Department is not the best or cheapest way to provide emergency medical service. Interactive software and video can – will have to – replace much of the teaching function. In each case, we need to find a way past the Baumol Cost Disease.

But that’s all in the long run.

Today and tomorrow, fewer cops means more crime, fewer firefighters means fewer heart-attack survivors, fewer teachers means worse schools. And in the medium term those technological changes will require investments; the cost curve will bend up before it bends down.

Mitt Romney thinks the “lesson of Wisconsin” is that the American people have been conned into wanting fewer public services and bigger TV sets. He’s wrong as a matter of politics. In agreeing with them, he’s also wrong as a matter of policy.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.