Sometimes I get the feeling that America is like a large and powerful locomotive hurtling down the track—but there’s nobody driving the train.
However, although by all rights the “dead man’s brake” should have brought us to a screeching halt long ago, we keep chugging right along—heedless of the dangers just up around the bend.
How is it that the American train keeps rolling without anyone in control? The answer is that our nation is now run by what might be called the “anti-deadman’s brake”, which is the permanent bureaucracy that pays no attention whatsoever to the wisdom of executing laws, rules, and regulations that might no longer serve any useful purpose. Even worse, these pointless functionaries will do all in their power to frustrate the efforts of elected officials to change course—or even simply slow down. There are forms to fill out, reports to file, flow charts to follow, and administrative jobs to protect. Change means danger, so no change is welcome. And so the train keeps rolling—onward towards oblivion.
The peculiar powers of those who insist we citizens exist to create paperwork for them to shuffle is, of course, not solely a problem of government and governance. Private businesses also have a long tradition of creating layers of management whose only apparent purposes are to frustrate innovation, block progress, and find new opportunities for creating “adminis-trivia”, which will suck up hours, days, and weeks of productive work time.
However, there is a major—and critically important—difference between the bureaucracies created by the private and public sectors.
When a privately-operated business become too overly laden with those individuals and departments that no longer serve a useful function, the parasitic dead weight of bureaucracy is sheared away so that the business can refocus money and energy on productive uses of time and human capital in order to maximize profit. If a business dallies when it should quickly act to improve worker productivity, it might soon be out of business.
Government, in stark contrast, has no market-imposed discipline to force it to keep operations lean. Moreover, there is no real pressure to maximize efficiency, so government agencies and their employees will keep doing exactly what they have been doing for no other reason than it has been the way they have always been doing it.
Elections may come and go—each ushering in a bright new crop of office holders—but promised reforms will often be frustrated by those occupying the countless little government cubicles where innovations go to die. Any effort to make changes will hit the brick wall of civil service regulations and union work rules that exist only to ensure that the permanent government can continue to be a ready jobs program for the marginally competent.
Many are, oddly enough, comforted by government’s resistance to change. They hear politicians speak of action—and they shudder. Change could eliminate a government grant, close and consolidate offices, or eliminate a lucrative contract. Whether any program or agency provides real value in relation its cost is merely a tangential concern.
If we keep in mind that a core mission of government is simply to spray cash hither and thither, it is perhaps easier to understand our habit of continuing to re-elect the same boneheads year after year after year. No one wants to screw with the obscenely expensive and brain dead goose that somehow still manages to squeeze out golden eggs—the alternative could be worse.
There will, of course, be a day—perhaps sooner than we think—when we can no longer afford a trillion dollar goose that lays fifty cent eggs. However, for reasons that perhaps surpass understanding, we seem largely oblivious to the fiscal swamp into which we are sinking. Despite breathtaking debt loads at every level of government, no plan for dramatically shrinking the size and cost of government is ever discussed—which suits many just fine. To actually question the basis of trillions of dollars of government spending—which would mean asking whether we get any real value back—might signal the beginning of the end of the administrative state and the make-work jobs it creates.
There is an old joke that asserts the only two life forms that will survive a nuclear war are cockroaches and Cher. This snarky joke, however, pre-dates the vast growth of government in all its glory over the past several decades. Therefore, I believe we need to add one more entity to the mix: government bureaucrats.
I am certain some agency somewhere will be writing a detailed report about the tonnage of deadly radioactive ash raining down upon our heads each day. There will be, of course, those who will argue that stating the stupendously obvious is a useful and reasonable function of government for which we should be thankful—while we scramble amongst the rubble to scratch out a living so that we can pay our taxes.