The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know for 130 years now, the federal government has had the civil service. It began with the Civil Service Act under Chester A. Arthur. It was an attempt to restrain the unseemly (and corrupt) spoils system, that had every customs officer and postmaster, lose their job when a president of a different party was elected.
Well, it cured the obvious problem, the hordes of federal workers (Do locusts come in hordes?) no longer get fired when the party of the president changes. The trouble is they never, ever get fired for anything. If there is one thing we know in the private sector, it is that one has to weed out the dead wood, the incompetent, the lazy, and the corrupt. That is nearly impossible in the government, the Civil Service system makes it very difficult and if that wasn’t enough, the government has decided that their employees should have a union as well.
If there was ever a system designed to make the bureaucrat different from and indifferent to the citizen, this is it. This is a system that has no penalties for non-performance, misfeasance, malfeasance, or even outright corruption, other than one or two flashy examples every once in a while to make a politician look good. Understand this, bureaucrats are not by definition evil, the word means they work in a bureau, In my mind Joseph after he got taken to Egypt was a bureaucrat. The problem is not what they are. The problem is that they have no incentives.
They almost literally cannot be fired. There is a method, they say. I’d guess it has been attempted once since FDR’s first election, and probably failed. Conversely there is no incentive to do better, to innovate, to do anything that would make the government work better.
On top of that there is a system (it exists in big business, as well) that tells them that if they don’t spend all the money in the budget, they’ll get less next year, while if they have overruns, they’ll get more. In a system where your worth is measured by your budget and number of subordinates: what would you do? Yeah, me too. We all act in our own interest.
I hate to say it, but I think the wildly corrupt spoils system was better. If nothing else, they had to respond somewhat to the citizen to help keep their party in charge.
Are there solutions? Of course, there are. I doubt I know most (or even many) of them. The key thing, I think, is to figure out some way to incentivize good behavior. The ways we do it in the private sector are fairly obvious, but I don’t think we want the Department of Justice trying to make a profit. Some say that the RICO Act went too far in that direction, and I’m not sure they’re wrong.
As a stopgap, perhaps much of it could be contracted out. Yes I know, contracting justifiably looks bad itself right now, but I’m not referring to single-source contracts to politicians’ buddies. What I have in mind are contracts, broken down into small pieces, like maybe the management of 5 rural post offices, or something along that line. Something that Harvey and Lois Lunchbucket would have a shot at winning and completing successfully.
That’s not a final answer of course, that requires a lot of contract management, but I see it as a start, maybe giving some of the supervisors a chance at the contracts. The point is that, those five post offices, if we do it right, will compete, not only with each other but with UPS, FedEx and all the others, if they can reduce their cost by some other method, they will do so, as long as we don’t write the specification like a straight jacket. I didn’t say it was easy, it’s not, but a government worthy of the people is worth some work, isn’t it?
We also need to think about what we do in government. Is there a reason for a Department of Education in the Federal Government? I don’t see one, but there may be an argument out that would convince me. Same with HUD, same with Interior, Agriculture. Same with almost the whole thing. It’s a legacy structure, that grew up to help settle the country and build industry and the world’s largest common market. That job is done. And in fact we are moving (at least in the first world) beyond industrialization and mass production.
As we sit here in America, watching the last gasp try of industrial socialism (which is failing) we should be thinking about where we go from here.
Personally, I think as we move into the new economy, we will find that in many ways we are moving personally back before the industrial revolution. not in income, or ease of access or lack of food, or anything that characterized the pre-industrial world. I don’t see Thomas Hobbes as a prophet. I think we will see a continuing move to work from our houses, for ourselves. Doing as much as we want, to meet our expectations, not some one elses. In other words more and more family based.
There’s no reason in this scenario for very much to be delegated to the federal government. Even more than during the industrial age, it will benefit the people for the states to compete, in whatever way they think will work, for population, for jobs, for all that stuff. The key point is the states be fully cognizant that the federal government is not going to bail them out, if they screw up, it’s up to them to fix.
Obviously, I don’t have all (or many) of the answers. I am convinced this is the way the world is going, I’m also convinced that America, is best suited because of our heritage of self-reliant individuals to lead the world in this movement. But let’s start thinking about this.
What do you think, how do we…
Break the paradigm