January 04, 2004
Immutable Laws of Government
Today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer published this op-ed by Eric Schlosser, under the headline "USDA dominated by industry it regulates". To the P-I's editors and credulous readers, for whom there can never be enough unnecessary regulation of industry, this must be a scandalous discovery. For the rest of us, this is merely a prediction of one of the Immutable Laws of Government.
Of course, government is not, uh, governed bythe same sort of inherent laws as, say, physics or even economics. But to the extent that government does function according to reasonably predictable patterns, here are a few of my favorite observations:
1) The primary mission of any agency is to sustain and expand itself.
2) Those individuals who have the greatest stake in any regulation/taxation/expenditure will invest the most time/money in influencing the above.
This might sound obvious, but it leads to several interesting corollaries:
a) The most heavily regulated industries are responsible for a disproportionate share of campaign contributions
b) Any agency will eventually be dominated by the industry it is intended to regulate
c) Any law that restricts campaign financing will only raise the cost of campaigning and therefore benefit those who have both the most to gain from, and the most to spend on influencing the outcome of the campaign
Combining laws (1) and (2) produces the next corollary:
(d) it is always much easier to introduce a new entitlement than to abolish an existing one.
These are not my original discoveries, of course. Law (2) and its corollaries are just a concise way of expressing some of Mancur Olson's ideas.
Certainly there are other Immutable Laws of Government. A Google search produces this one:
"Government is inherently inefficient"
and this one:
when poor policy creates cash crunches, the logical solution is to penalize the public in the most visible possible way.
I invite my readers to post their own favorite suggestions for Immutable Laws of Government
Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at January 04, 2004 04:04 PM
That last law is proven correct daily, as we see time after time. Public safety, the primary responsibility of government, is often the first thing on the chopping block.
How about this one:
Government is more open to democratic scrutiny than are corporations.
It is almost impossible to kill off a government agency or project once it is started. For example the Department of Energy and the Department of Education have long been recognized to be utterly worthless and despite many attempts to terminate them they live on.
For a government project that will not die, despite having a single redeeming value, we only have to look as far as the Seattle Monorail.
Gary...you say: "Government is more open to democratic scrutiny than are corporations."
This is (in general) true, but is also as it should be. Government is that only institution that is licensed to use force--to haul you off to jail if you don't do what it wants. Hence, it is inherently more dangerous than even the nastiest corporation, and needs maximum scrutiny.
To follow up David Foster's comment:
At the end of the day, you have a choice as to whether you want to buy the corporation's stuff or not. You don't want to eat at McDonald's? Don't eat at McDonald's. You don't want to watch ABC, buy Mickey Mouse, or be exposed to "Grand Theft Auto 3"? Then don't.
Last I checked, you don't get much say about whether you pay your taxes or not. Government HAS the right to come and lock you up if you don't.
And once government has those dollars (your dollars, mind you, my dollars), it can spend it, to some extent, independent of your or my wishes. You don't like nukes? Tough. You don't like spending on welfare? Tough.
Under such circumstances, the LEAST government can do is try to be accountable about what happened to all those dollars it TAKES from us.
They're called elections, Dean. As for the evil bureaucracies? Considering our elected representatives fund their budgets and have ultimate power over their decisions, they're plenty accountable. The beauty of democracy, Dean, is that government is remarkably responsive to voters. Corporations are only accountable to their shareholders, and as the recent fiascos demonstrate, not even then. Don't get me wrong; I am shamelessly pro-capitalism. It's just important to keep capitalism and free markets in perspective.
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Bureaucrats may be "plenty accountable" in some areas of government. But you have no idea how hard it can be for an ethical government employee to live under some of the "accountable" bureaucrats in crusty old government institutions, or how difficult it is to expose corruption or stupidity (particularly economoc corruption or stupidity) say, in a prison system. Even simple things like refusal to buy a ten dollar part that leads to the destruction of a million dollar machine. Or buying equipment on the whim of a bureaucrat which will be unusable with existing equipment. Or a drug-addicted doctor operating on a brain-damaged child in a State facility without anesthetic so he can shoot up the drugs he ordered for the operation.
Of course, bone-headed or illegal actions sometimes catch up with the perpetrators, but if they have enough connections, they can often shift blame to someone else. Employee protection regulations often mean that horrifically wrong actions are covered up because it would be too hard to fire the perpetrator (the reaction of the head doctor in the institution where the drug-addicted doctor worked was to never, ever take another vacation day, himself).
And what Lawrence Miller called "Arrogance of Office" can occur at any level where government bureaucrats feel really secure. One reflection of this is that there are attorneys who limit their practices to employee lawsuits against the University of California.
To get an idea of how accountable bureaucrats are when they have a relatively steady source of income, think of Kofi Annan's personal administration of the "Oil for Palaces" program in Iraq. How many details has the public been given by the U.N. of where the money went ? How did Saddam get past U.N. controls to stash all those billions in foreign accounts?
Has the silence of bureaucrats in the U.N. been bought off? Their salaries are pretty high to begin with. Of course, I realize that the U.N. is not exactly a democracy. But the more recent spy scandals in the CIA, for example, came at the same time as widespread allegations of sexual harassment, etc.
While government bureaucracies do have to think about how to keep politicians happy, it has been my observation that the time lag between the occurrence of corruption and its exposure is generally longer within government institutions than it is in corporations. Corruption reduces the competitive effectiveness of corporations, and they tend to fall to pieces or be taken over if things get too bad.
The corruption in the CIA took years to develop. How many of the real perpetrators of the corruption do you think suffered for it? There was a fabulous opinion piece about this by a former CIA official in the L.A. Times years ago, but I don't remember his name.