Government as God

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We have seen quite a string of books recently by authors who severely criticize big government for waste, error, and corruption, yet who continue to have a passionate faith in it. Perhaps the first was Philip Howard’s 1994 jeremiad, “The Death of Common Sense.” Paul C. Light is the latest to join this genre. He begins his work pointing to 18 recent failures in federal administration, including security breaches at nuclear labs, Hurricane Katrina miscues, porous borders, and the subprime mortgage meltdown. He says the federal government is burdened with bloated upper management, cumbersome hiring systems, loss of accountability, and uninspired employees mainly interested in pay and benefits. “The federal service,” he says, “is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded.”

This wouldn’t surprise those familiar with the writings of von Mises and Hayek, who pointed out that a central coercive agency could never have the knowledge to wisely manage the millions of comings and goings in a large society. Inefficiency and folly are inevitable, and, just as inevitable, the public scorn that mismanagement reaps. Alas, Light never glimpses this problem of complexity. He still believes big government can succeed. It just needs to be reformed – some more.

His 28 remedies are remarkably lame.

Aware that the federal government is somehow overloaded, he proposes that somebody develop and impose “a sorting methodology for determining the importance, difficulty, and success of the federal government’s mission, and jettison missions that are no longer relevant.” He fails to notice that we already have such a mechanism. It’s the cumbersome maelstrom called politics, and the idea that senators, governors, mayors, employee unions, mass media, lobbyists, and Al Gore would sit quietly by while this commission jettisoned government missions is embarrassingly naive.

Another of Light’s proposals is “a moratorium on reform.’f He’s right to complain that decades of executive branch reforms, piled on by every Tom, Dick, and Harry, have multiplied conJune 2009 fusion and inconsistency. But where does that leave Paul, with his suitcase-full of 28 additional reforms?

One of his proposals would delight paleoconservatives. He wants to take a meat-ax to the higher bureaucracy. “Reduce the number of managers by half at all levels of government,” he urges. Light is, understandably, vexed by the “thickening” of management layers in the federal government. Between the line employee carrying out policy and the top brass there are now between 25 and 60 layers of command: deputy undersecretaries, associate deputy undersecretaries, and so on. (Organization charts show there’s even an “Associate principal deputy assistant secretary,” I kid you not.) As Light points out, these many layers mean that commands going down are garbled or ignored, and information flowing up is distorted or blocked.

But Light fails to realize that all of these positions have responsibilities stemming from law, regulation, or presidential directive. You couldn’t eliminate 3,000 federal executive positions without jettisoning thousands of programs that someone thinks are important. Indeed, even to attempt it, you would have to first create, in every agency, a deputy assistant secretary in charge of eliminating deputy assistant secretaries.

Light is concerned about low employee morale. To improve it, he proposes (this is his “reform” D7) that everyone “Talk incessantly about the important contributions federal employees make through their service.” To protect sensitive souls in the bureaucracy, “Congress and the president can help by stopping their constant attacks on big government.” Again, Light exempts himself from his advice: federal administrators will hardly be cheered by his book about”government ill-executed.”

The solution to cumbersome, disgraceful big government is, of course, much smaller government, but this solution eludes Light. He does not suggest even one federal program that should be cut or abandoned, nor does he note any principles to limit federal involvement, such as the idea that Washington should not do what local government can do. He is convinced that the federal government could do everything well if people would heed his suggestions (and ignore everyone else’s), and if they would stop trying to “starve” it (yes, Light considers $2,800,000,000,000 a starvation diet).

Light notes that he was a senior consultant for the first National Commission on the Public Service in 1989, and observes that all of the dysfunctional trends reported then “have worsened since.” Yet 19 years later, he still believes that effective, efficient big government is possible.

The only explanation I can see for his steadfast loyalty is that the federal government is his church. Something of his reverent attitude is revealed in his observations – entirely unexplained – that lithe federal government accomplishes the impossible every day,” and that federal employees “make miracles every day.” This is the language of swooning faith, not empirical analysis.

Treating government as a metaphysical entity, as Light seems to do, puts it beyond rational evaluation. When one prays to a god for an end to floods or epidemics and the floods and epidemics get worse, one does not conclude there is no god. One prays some more.

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