I made a living for many years teaching small business owners and their employees how to use a powerful and intricate computer program. “You must think we’re stupid,” they would occasionally say with a rueful chuckle, after making mistakes. Often the person making such a self-deprecating comment had recently one of those behind-the-scenes websites filled with anecdotes from computer-support techs about their goofy clients. (As a frequent flier, I had a comparable fondness for websites that reveal what airline personnel really think about their passengers.)
I got the “you must think we’re stupid” comment tossed my way in front of a sizable audience once, so I thought it merited an answer. What I said was well-received enough to become a standard part of my seminar presentations. “It’s not a question of intelligence, so much as focus,” I explained. “Most of the time, when people do something they later regard as stupid, it’s because they weren’t paying attention, or because they couldn’t concentrate on the problem long enough to come up with a thorough solution. You folks have a hundred things blowing up in your faces during a busy day at the office. When you pass a problem off to a computer support tech, we get to focus on the problem until it’s resolved. That counts for as much as how smart or experienced we might be.”
Intelligence requires effort. A smart person who doesn’t pay attention or put effort into the task at hand often ends up doing dumb things. It’s like a having a high-performance car with an empty gas tank. That’s true for organizations as much as individuals, which is why we find ourselves facing the Rise of the Ineptocracy. We live under the biggest, most expensive government in history, and it can’t do anything right. It’s one faceplant after another – from bungled foreign policy, to screwed-up website launches, failed economic “stimulus” plans, agencies that seem almost impervious to reform, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Secret Service, and Ebola defenses that shredded like wet tissue paper as soon as an infected man hopped off a flight from Liberia. We’re constantly told our mega-government, which now has virtually limitless power and funding, is supervised by the Best and the Brightest. Boasts about the alleged intellectual superiority of the current President are especially common.
But in practice, the Leviathan turns out to be dumber than a bag of hammers. Not coincidentally, the consequences for screwing up at the highest levels are virtually nil. Americans reeled in amazement from the news that Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was resigning. That never happens any more.
Much of this perpetual Big Government failure can be thought of as a lack of focus, like the theoretically smart person who gets distracted and makes foolish mistakes. Mission creep is ubiquitous among government agencies. Political agendas matter far more than addressing whatever problem an agency was nominally created to address. There are built-in incentives to reward creative failure, because appendages of the State grow larger by presenting themselves as outmatched, under-staffed, and under-funded. Cheerfully declaring your mission accomplished, ahead of schedule and under budget, is the most counter-productive thing a bureaucrat could do.
Just as there are few personal consequences for people at the top in this unaccountable era, there are no institutional consequences for failure. The magic of massive deficit spending means politicians don’t have to rob one constituency to pay off another, or tell angry dependents that money for their lollipops was squandered on some idiotic disaster. Nobody else feeding at the government trough had to sacrifice anything when those huge “green energy” programs went bust. Politicians have many tools at their disposal to evade electoral consequences for a particular failure. Without firm balanced budget rules, there are no great pressures to focus the federal mind, so the Ruling Class can indulge its daydreams.
There are no objective criteria for Big Government failure, so it feels no pressure to sweat the details. When was the last time a massive program was declared a failure and put out of our misery? Goalposts can be moved. Excuses can be concocted. Shortcomings can be blamed on what remains of the private sector, which is one reason the modern Big Government enthusiast loves those government-business partnership arrangements. What politician doesn’t want his own pet scapegoat?
That’s how we rolled into the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty with poverty rates roughly the same… and liberals declaring the whole thing a smashing success, because poverty’s not as bad with all those welfare benefits. That most certainly was not the criteria for success laid out at the beginning of the War on Poverty, and it actually still isn’t the criteria given by liberals to this very day – from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, they all insist anti-poverty programs must reduce poverty rates and turn welfare dependents into productive taxpayers. They also promise the programs will be run with crisp efficiency and total honesty. None of that ever happens. Instead, the Ineptocracy has given us generational welfare dependence, a reduced workforce, soaring program costs, staggering administrative overhead, and pervasive abuse. We’re treated to ridiculous stories like a drug dealer who kept his food-stamp cards (yes, cards) running after winning a million-dollar lottery. The government makes very little effort to crack down on this nonsense, because it doesn’t want to. High levels of dependency and big spending on such programs is a violation of the explicit goals, but perfectly in keeping with the hidden agenda of the Big Government Left, and the explicit goals don’t really matter. The result, to the proverbial Man From Mars, looks like sheer idiocy. It only stops looking stupid when you accept how dishonest it all is.
Immigration and border security are like that, too. The Man From Mars takes the statements of the Ruling Class at face value and says, “You say you’re determined to enforce your laws, and you have both ample resources and incredible technology to get the job done, but you do the job so badly that you end up releasing tens of thousands of alien criminals from detention centers… and nobody in the chain of command can say exactly why. Your government must be run by morons!” Focusing on hidden agendas and paying fealty to open-borders ideology creates what appears to be stunning incompetence.
Big Government behaves stupidly because it faces few serious consequences for its folly. Politicians and bureaucrats have agendas that run contrary to what they promise voters, or even the duties they are sworn to perform. Ideology can prevent them from doing the smart thing, because a politically favored group might find it offensive. If the smart thing involves reducing the power of the State, it’s literally unthinkable. Of course we are now ruled by an ineptocracy. We allowed the government to grow, and degenerate, until nothing better could possibly flourish.
Update: Some excellent thoughts along the same lines from Rick Wilson at Ricochet…
Government is always broken, always sloppy, always shockingly bad at doing its core missions. It’s great at nest-feathering, intimidating the little people, imposing regulations and costs, and sticking its nose where its political masters desire. Mission focus? Not so much. The military tends to be somewhat of an exception, but if you’ve ever worked in the Pentagon, you know of the gigantic iceberg of bureaucracy, incompetence, graft, and stupidity just below the waterline. The shooters on the front lines are what you see. The lower part of the iceberg is invisible, but consequential.
… and Kevin Williamson at National Review:
The recent failures of the Secret Service involving the protection of the president — the knife-wielding, climate-change-obsessed White House fence jumper, putting the president in an elevator with a pistol-packing felon — come on the heels of other embarrassing episodes, most notably a baker’s dozen agents being busted drunkenly frolicking with hookers in Cartagena, Colombia, where prostitutes are used as infiltrators by drug cartels. But these are not the cause of the Secret Service’s problems — they are symptoms of it.
Bureaucracies fail in their missions because political institutions inevitably — it is very nearly a law of nature — come to embrace pursuing their own parochial interests, rather than their stated missions, as their prime motive. And, like all political agencies, the Secret Service is subject to the political self-interest of the agencies to which it is subordinate, in this case the White House.
Williamson wraps up with a killer question about the Ineptocracy we already know the answer to: “How good a job do you think that large, sprawling agencies, staffed with second- and third-rate representatives of their various fields, are going to manage to do when it comes to extraordinarily complex jobs such as regulating financial markets or trying to determine the “right” price for certain medical services?”