Saturday, February 19, 2005

Government and Efficiency

Government organizations are usually (but not always) plagued by politics and power, which produce inefficient and dishonest bureaucracies. Political partisanship makes it political suicide to take responsibility for a mistake. As a result, politicians take no responsibility, and the job of the lower ranks of the bureaucracy is to cover their ass when the blame comes down. The best way to avoid making mistakes is to do nothing, and to shuffle all real useful work to the bottom of the ladder. This is the zero-error principle, but it might just as well be called the zero-effectiveness principle. When a mistake is made, the worker bees take the fall, and the politically savvy middle or upper managers escape blame and continue to clog the system. The cost of political partisanship is that the government is nit-picked into paralysis. Thus, the expansion of government is the fault of all sides of the political spectrum.

Indeed, these professional bureaucrats protect themselves by building empires, and can actually turn their own incompetence to their benefit, by demanding more money to address their own failings. Governmental power attract the corruptible, who seek to turn that power and public wealth to their own ends. To counter this decay, and to attempt to prevent normal administrative errors, new departments accumulate to check existing ones (the Department of Homeland Security is an example of this.) This is how the government grows, again, usually through partisan criticism and demands for change. Ironically, much of this expansion may be the result of calls for more fiscal responsibility--bean counters on bean counters on bean counters.

The most efficient form of government is probably a benevolent dictatorship, but dictatorships never stay benevolent. The tradeoff in government is between effectiveness and damage control. Too little power and nothing gets done, too much power and the wrong thing gets done. Most democratic governments are built for gridlock, to provide checks and balance on power. You may not get the most efficient government, but you will get a less harmful one. The problem comes when a politician wants heavy handed effectiveness. This soon causes the system to grow rapidly, as the new powers attract political beaurocrats, greedy for a piece of the pie, while at the same time abuses of that power encourage the growth of institutions of restraint. It is not surprising, then, that the Bush administration has ushered in an period of unprecendented governmental expansion that will likely continue long after it has left office.

Far from solving the problem, calls for large government cuts make it worse, because these are merely simplistic, populist postures to gain votes. They act like binge and purge dieting, burning muscle and leaving fat. Political beaurocrats, who actually do no work, are politically savvy enough to escape the cuts. The ones who get cut will be those too busy doing actual work to notice the axe coming down. Indeed, the perfect political beaurocrat will be right there beside you, calling for the cutbacks, because that will score political points and make his job more secure. And the ones most likely to jump this demoralized beaurocracy will probably be the most competent, who are also the ones most likely to find other employment. The end product is survival of the fattest--who are also the ones that cost the most.

Nor are these problems unique to government; large corporations are prone to the same problems, and private industry with a pipeline to the public gravy train combines the worst of both worlds. The military-industrial complex is a good example of this. There are simply some jobs that must be done on a non-profit basis, with the public paying for and handling the books.

The cuts, once made, are rapidly felt--capitalism is, after all, a partnership between business and government. The economic system we all live under was created and is sustained by continual government intervention. It's amazing how many people don't know this and think all government should be abolished. So the cuts must be rolled back--in fact, the government must be expanded well beyond its previous size to get any useful work done.

The solutions would be less partisanship and a higher fault tolerance in the beaurocracy (rather than the zero-error principle), with emphasis on accomplishment rather than mere error-avoidance. But above all, we have to abolish the narcissistic management style, epitomized by Bush administration and encouraged by pundits everywhere, where leaders take all of the credit but none of the blame.