Anyone out there in favor of smaller government and reduced taxes?

Some futurists have been saying for years that powerful computers, the Internet, and the other elements of advanced technology could help reduce the size and cost of government.Now we're starting to see how this might happen. It's not just speculation any more. Real possibilities are emerging.

However, some key ethical and public policy questions must be addressed before we see major change. As always, the technology surges way ahead of the sociology. The Internet world flashes by at warp speed. Public policy moves like cold molasses.

But change is coming, driven by the inexorable march of technology.

The Internet world, or the "Web lifestyle" as Microsoft chief Bill Gates calls it, makes outsourcing of many business and government functions easier than ever before. In the next several years, any process that is information intensive - that amounts to obtaining, transferring, recording and storing data - will become much more efficient and less costly.

"Data," in the high-tech world, includes anything that can be digitized - signatures, words, money, still pictures, moving pictures, documents, music, books, etc. Any process that deals mostly with those elements can be highly automated and made more efficient.

That would include an awful lot of government processes.

Already, many private businesses, especially the large financial institutions, credit card companies, airline ticket reservation centers, and so forth, are perfecting the art and science of efficient remote electronic transaction processes.

Some of these companies could readily take over some aspects of drivers' license renewal, automobile registration, business and professional licensing, etc., and do it far cheaper than government.

You'd never have to stand in line again at a government office. Get your eyes checked in a five-minute visit to your optometrist, obtain your vehicle emissions test verification, log on to the Internet at home, your office, the library or a shopping mall kiosk, and in a few minutes your license could be renewed or your vehicle registered for another year.

All those acres of cubicles housing people inputting data at the Tax Commission could go away. The networking and technology exist to do all of this rather easily, but if we wait for government to do it, it'll be a long wait.

In California, a consortium of four large companies have proposed taking over networking, telecommunications and computing technology for the entire California university system, at a savings of many millions of dollars to the state.

In Utah, a private high-tech company is suggesting it could provide - for free - some of the networking, e-mail and Internet access services for students now supplied by the tax-supported institutions. Actually, this company thinks it can do it better than free. It would actually share the revenues it earns with the schools.

So how does this work? How can private companies provide - at low cost or no cost - services that government has provided at higher cost? Ah, here's where the "sociology" part comes in, where the hard questions start to be asked.

Private companies might be able to provide some government services cheaper, faster and more efficiently, but they'll need to see a return on their investment. They'll want, perhaps, a small fee per transaction. Or they'll want to support their service with advertising. Or they'll want use of the data they collect in some way.

The company that wants to offer free Internet, e-mail and networking services to Utah students would support it with fees and advertising. So when a student gets on the system to register for a class, check grades or to see if the library has a book, the student would also see a series of advertisements. The company could offer advertisers access to Utah college students.

So here's the tradeoff: Reduced education costs, but commercial advertising gets injected into education processes.

There will be similar tradeoffs in other areas as private enterprise takes over government services.

I don't believe the concerns about advertising, privacy and security are as serious as the alarmists would have us believe. After all, consider the data and information already in the hands of private companies - your bank, your doctor/hospital, credit bureaus, your employer, your insurance companies, credit-card companies, and so forth. Advanced technology might actually provide new and better privacy and security options.

One thing is clear: We're going to have to have a big, loud public debate before very much of government is turned over to the private sector.