Another e-mail exchange with Katherine Otto, another resulting blog post.
Here in the US, we complain about Government. Big government vs. limited government, government overreach, government oversight… What is the right size, what is the right role… A recent Vox article pointed out that all this anger that we’re hearing about, the justification for the left’s support of Bernie Sanders and the right’s support of Donald Trump, isn’t anger stemming from economic pain, but anger at politics. So let’s unpack the things that make up the government and talk for a minute about what we are complaining about when we complain about government.
First, there are two components of Government: the Branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the Bureaucracy. For those of us for whom civics lessons are in the far distant past, the Executive Branch of government is the President. The Legislative Branch is Congress, and the Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court. The Branches of government are primarily political in nature – populated by politicians (defined as people who campaign to get elected to office) and people who are appointed by politicians.
And then there is the Bureaucracy… The thousands of men and women who write policy, order supplies, count beans, interpret Congressional or Presidential mandate, hire people, push papers around, order IT services, etc. The Bureaucracy is, in most ways, at the mercy of the Branches. Congress makes laws, allocates spending, sets priorities, and tells the Bureaucracy what to do. For example, Congress writes the No Child Left Behind Act and the bureaucrats at the Department of Education start taking a complex law and unpacking it into guidance, policy, and programs that meet the intent of the law. More or less. Further, each of the departments in the Federal Government is likely headed up by a political appointee, someone who is only there for 4 years or the whim of the President, and doesn’t necessarily know, understand, or respect the organization they are suddenly in charge of.
There may be no legitimate defense of the Branches, or at least the people who populate the branches. It seems that we don’t send our best and brightest to legislate, we send our most craven and narcissistic. That is by design. First, we pick the bastards. We don’t go for the politician who tells us that we can’t have it all, or that religion really doesn’t belong in our government, or that the founding fathers weren’t fundamentalists, or that everything costs something, or that taxes are a small price to pay for being an American with all the protections and privileges that affords. Those aren’t the people we hire, by and large. We send the ones who tell us what we want to hear and confirm our biases. And then they get there and they gerrymander the system so that they can cherry-pick their voters to stay in the halls of power.
Similarly, the Bureaucracy is less than perfect. No one makes decisions because they are afraid of failure, which means a choice place on the front page of the Washington Post and the unenviable experience of testifying before Congress. The outrage machine combined with a crippling dose of risk aversion means that there are policies layered upon policies. The Bureaucracy creaks under the weight of over 200 years of someone’s dumbass mistake or corruption turned into a policy to prevent *that* from ever happening again, except people can always be relied upon to come up with some fresh way of being stupid. So another layer of policy goes on top of the previous policies until it is a wonder that anything gets accomplished.
Everyone ends up frustrated.
Except. Always the except. This Government, warts and all, has to serve each citizen equally. Which sometimes turns into pissing off each citizen equally. Whatever gets done by Government tends to get done slowly. Yes, this keeps us from dazzling progress, but it also protects us from good ideas that sound good in theory and work out disastrously in practice. The Bureaucracy measures six times, sharpens the saw, measures another three times for good measure, calls a committee, conducts a study, measures again, and then *maybe* progresses to a cut. Maybe.
Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. It is certainly a frustrating thing for many people. But is it *bad* that we can’t conceive of one answer and only one answer and go after it singlemindedly to accomplish an end in a time span that can be measured in days instead of years? I don’t think so. Because you’d have to trust that the people calling for that plan know what they’re doing and have adequately prepared for third- and fourth-order effects. You’d have to trust that the decision-makers, our legislators, were operating off of evidence instead of ideology. You’d want to make sure you weren’t one of the people on the minority side of the issue. And you for damn sure wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a rough patch or a slice of bad luck.