Sunday, August 4, 2013

King George's Revenge

Among the complaints lodged against King George in the Declaration of Independence, we find this one:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

We are no longer ruled by England, but we have managed to institute new swarms of officials using home grown replacements. The government in Washington feels no motivation to limit the numbers of public employees, but the reverse. The millions of positions in government service, overseeing regulations that in some cases we do not need, comprise a reliable voting bloc for the status quo. Big government makes out their paychecks. Why would they ever feel that big government could be a problem?

The Constitution is a brief and fairly straightforward document, thus its requirements could be met with fewer than the millions of workers, more numerous than all of the military, now employed at the task. At that, much of the citizenry feels that "government worker" is an oxymoron. Viewing the question in light of the country's economic vigor they are right, since the positions are not productive.

The bureaucrat is a taker, not a maker. Sometimes he has a doubly negative effect, firstly by drawing a salary and producing nothing, secondly when some rule or regulation he enforces has a negative effect on business. There are many rules and regulations like that, not all of them necessary, and some which are open to capricious enforcement.

Of course there are some useful roles for government employees. The trouble is we have more employees than those roles require. Doubtless there are instances when having a government enforced rule contributes to everyone's health, safety and economic security, such as rules about dangerous pollutants, highway design and honest banking, to name a few. The trouble comes when every need, real or imagined, is copiously covered by rulebooks for all occasions.

It is often better if the people are left free to work out innovative solutions when they encounter a problem, rather than having their actions dictated by a bureaucrat with a book. Of course when the people work out their own answers there will be good answers and bad ones, but sensible people will imitate the good solutions that innovative people come up with and discard the bad solutions, leading to progress in how we understand and deal with various problems.

The broad and general principle here, a very reliable one, is that distributed thinking is smarter than central decision making. If you have millions of people thinking about a problem you have millions of opportunities for a good call when the situation is new and offers new challenges. Get away from that and what you are left with is the best judgment of a panel of bureaucrats, and their best is often none too good.

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