TCS Daily

The Plan to Fix the Government

By James Pinkerton - March 31, 2006 12:00 AM

[Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series. Part One can be found here.]

The government sucks. That's a snappier way of saying that the Uncle Sam suffers from a "crisis of process." Last week I cited various federal snafus; from the Dubai ports deal to Katrina relief to the never-ending story of educational incompetence -- but now let's talk about solutions.

Right now, as Bush bumps along the rocky bottom of his support base, most sympathetic observers are suggesting at least some changes in the W status quo. Typical is Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who suggests a staff shakeup (and, indeed, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card has this week resigned). That's not a bad idea, but people aren't always the issue; sometimes the problem is chronic, even systemic.

In this essay on de-sucking the government, I will make the point -- and I will underscore that point with the words of a real expert -- that it's the federal government itself, the way it is currently configured, that is at the heart of the problem. If you will: It's the system, stupid. In the short run, good people can sometimes overcome a bad system, but over time, a bad system will defeat ordinary people -- and wear down even the best people.

Federal judge Richard Posner, appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan, has written starkly about the "crisis of competence," citing the inability to foresee the reaction to the Dubai deal as a prime example. He continues, "For reasons probably rooted in the sheer complexity of modern society, to which our governmental structure may not be well adapted, we have experienced in recent years a series of policy fiascoes, many of which seem to reflect an inability to plan ahead."

So what should Republicans do? After all, their necks are on the line in 2006, and most of the rest of them are on the line in 2008. And more importantly, what's best for America?

Bob Walker has a big idea-solution. Long a student of science -- he was chairman of the House Science Committee -- and the science of government, Walker is one of the smartest individuals ever to serve in Congress. As chief deputy whip for the Gingrichian Republican majority in 1995-6, he spearheaded much of the reorganization of House operations during those watershed years.

Walker's idea, which makes it print debut here in TCSDaily, is this: Take the functions of the federal executive branch and turn them all into five "super departments." That is, take the existing unwieldy 15 Cabinet departments -- and umpty-ump independent agencies -- and collapse them into a user-friendly quintet:

  • National Security - including Defense, State, the CIA
  • Economy & Trade - including Treasury, Commerce, Special Trade Representative
  • Justice, Border & Homeland Security
  • Energy, Environment, Science & Technology
  • Human Resources & Transportation

We can call it the Walker Plan. The US government is "more and more disorganized," Walker told me, relative to the challenges it faces. And so it is "losing ground" relative to reality. The Walker Plan would make for a manageable Cabinet. As to exactly what would go where, Walker observes that some choices are easy (the Departments of Education and Labor would both fall under the Human Resources rubric), but for others (what to do with the presently independent National Science Foundation) the answer might be trickier.

But Walker isn't trying to write holy writ; he's trying to get a conversation started -- a conversation about how to make the government succeed at the tasks put before it. "If these five Super Secretaries were presumed each to have the ear of the president," Walker observes, "it would then be easier to force new ideas and priorities down into their agencies."

But that's not the way things work at present. Today, most members of the Cabinet are weak players inside the federal government. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson, for example, is a friend of W's from Texas. But as a practical matter these days, urban issues don't merit much one-on-one time in the Oval Office -- if any. But while HUD is not a particularly important agency inside the executive branch, it still spends almost $34 billion a year, and the cost (or value, depending one's point of view) of its regulations is many times that amount. Which is to say, HUD is a plum -- even if the White House is worried about other things. So what happens instead is that HUD is looted by Congressional earmarkers, constituency-group lobbyers, and stakeholder mau-mauers -- and there's not much that Secretary Jackson can do about it. Outside groups control HUD, rather than its inside chief.

Far better, in Walker's view, would be to bring HUD issues into a serious framework, so that powerful eyes can watch over its expenditures, managing programs in the context of overall government goals. So under the Walker Plan, HUD, too, would be folded into a big-time Department of Human Resources -- and whoever ran this gigantic "DHR" would be a serious player in town.

Yet at the same time, each of the Super Secretaries would report to the President; they'd have to, because they would be right at his side. Everybody knows that small groups of heavyweights get more done than big groups of lightweights, but that lesson comes doubly clear in a new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The illustration on the dust jacket underscores Walker's point: We see President Lincoln with seven advisers -- that's it.

In fact, as Goodwin details, Lincoln ran the executive branch with just four members of his Cabinet; initially, those men were William H. Seward (State), Salmon P. Chase (Treasury), Simon Cameron (War) and Edward Bates (Attorney General). Interestingly, all of four of them had been rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. In this instance, it doesn't take anything away from The Great Emancipator to cite the latter-day wisdom of another shrewd observer of human nature, Michael Corleone, who said in The Godfather, Part II, "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." That original quartet didn't last of course, as Lincoln made replacements. And for the record, there were three other departments back then -- Post Office, Interior, and Navy -- which were most useful to the Union cause by not getting in the way.

Whatever one might think of our Sixteenth President, three points stand out. First, he won the Civil War. And the second and third points -- well, they don't matter very much by comparison.

In other successful wars, too, the decision-making loop was extraordinarily small. In World War Two, President Roosevelt relied on the single figure of Harry Hopkins for many domestic and diplomatic missions (It's little wonder that Hopkins died of exhaustion at a relatively young age just after the war ended). And as for winning the combat, Roosevelt brought Admiral William Leahy -- whom he had first met during the Wilson Administration -- out of retirement to help oversee the relationship between the War and Navy Departments.

Leahy's title was Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Army and Navy; it was not a perfect relationship -- Harry Truman, who even as Vice President was not really involved, quipped that the war would have been won sooner if the Army and Navy hadn't been so busy fighting each other -- but once again, it's hard to argue with victory.

As discussed in part one, The National Security Act of 1947 solved a lot of these problems for the national security establishment, imposing a useful degree of centralization and coordination. In sharp contrast, the domestic sector has since languished in chaotic but costly balkanization.

The Walker Plan has had a few predecessors; they just didn't get very far. In 1972, President Richard Nixon sent a Cabinet-consolidation proposal to Congress: Natural Resources, Human Resources, Community Development, and Economic Affairs. The idea was carpet-bombed by Capitol Hill barons; then totally torpedoed by Watergate.

A few years later, when Jimmy Carter campaigned for the presidency, he called for a sweeping reorganization of Washington DC; his idea was to shrink 1900 different federal entities down to 200. But Congress blocked such obvious reforms as bringing the US Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture over to the Department of Interior. Three decades later, the USFS still sits in USDA. And oh, by the way, Carter oversaw the creation of two new Cabinet departments: Energy and Education.

Today, the situation is even more out of control, even in agencies mandated with life-and-death missions. The Department of Homeland Security is just three years old, and yet already some 88 committees and subcommittees on Capitol Hill claim some degree of jurisdiction over its operations.

So how, then, could the Walker Plan succeed? How to overcome the balkanization of baronies, and the fragmentation of fiefdoms? "Just do it," is the veteran lawmaker's answer. That is, the President could just make a declaration: that he is empowering five Cabinet Secretaries to be his Super Secretaries. It would be a move similar to the designation of "inner cabinets" in many other countries; everybody understands that the Minister of Defense is more important than the Minister of Tourism (except in the Caribbean).

Obviously there would be much teeth-gnashing by rivals if Bush were to designate, say, Mike Leavitt to be the head of the Department of Human Resources conglomerate. One would not expect, for example, that the secretaries of Housing, Education, Labor, and Veterans would be happy to learn that they were now reporting to the President through Human Services. However, since none of those departments has much serious entrée into the Oval Office now, they might, upon reflection, conclude that Leavitt is better than nothing. That is, it's better to have at least one social-welfare chieftain with a seat at the table than none.

To take another example, suppose Attorney General Al Gonzales, who definitely does have the President's ear, were put in charge of the homeland security portfolio. Few think that Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff brings any special talent to the table, so pushing him away from the table would eliminate some clutter. Meanwhile, Gonzales would understand that the whole of homeland-related law enforcement would now be resting on his shoulders.

After all, in bureaucratic government, access is everything. And the number of those who have access is, by definition, small. So the President should establish a Golden Circle of Access, and make sure that the band of brothers and sisters -- that happy few -- is cheek to jowl with the Chief. Give 'em all offices in the West Wing; five is an easy number to make room for. As they say in DC, nothing propinqs like propinquity.

Of course, if the Big Five spend their time hanging with the President, that leaves open the question of who will run the departments. Answer: strong deputies and agents. Or, to put it another way, the federal government has to be well-run by its executives. If not, then the President needs to look his failures right in the eye and tell them that they are no longer needed. If the executive branch were made, once again, exciting and elite, it wouldn't be hard to find superior replacements for failures.

But, some will object, what about the Katrina/FEMA problem? That is, Washington wisdom these days is that the once-independent Federal Emergency Management Agency lost clout when it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown says he was unable to muster sufficient resources to react to Katrina, because he didn't have the pull, buried as he was inside the DHS domain. There's some merit to that argument, but there's even more merit to the argument that "Brownie" wasn't very good. And as noted, Chertoff doesn't add much value, either.

So the real answer is to find better people, give them plenty of authority -- but also lots of responsibility, including responsibility for failure. The Bush administration, and the American people, would be much better off with more competent people who are linked in a chain of command that reaches right to the commander-in-chief. So give FEMA to Gonzales, and tell him that his neck is on the line, come hurricane season.

That's the Walker Plan. But the ex-legislator has another point to make: If the President were to designate these Super Secretaries, Congress would have to react in kind. That is, in response to the executive branch reorganization, however informal it might be, the constellations of committees on Capitol Hill would have to think about reorganizing themselves, too. "You force Congress to react," Walker explains. And so hundreds of committees and subcommittees, each one zealously jealous of its turf, budget, and protocol, might disappear -- good riddance.

Once again, there's valuable precedent here -- proof that when Congress, too, needs to get things done, it can tighten its own ship. In December 1861, after a string of military defeats jeopardized the Union itself, Congress came to the realization that hoary folkways of Capitol Hill were not adequate to the crisis at hand. In one of those moments that remind us that government actually can, on occasion, pull up its socks, lawmakers acted decisively and well, summoning up a Joint Committee On The Conduct Of The War, made up of a grand total of seven members. That's right, seven. When you absolutely, positively, want not to lose a war, you do things that might seem impossible otherwise. So today, committee chairs, who have grown accustomed to muscling minor Cabinet officials with impunity, might be chary of tangling with a high-profile Super Secretary who can go right to the President -- and the public.

So that's the real beauty of the Walker Plan: By streamlining itself, the Executive Branch would force the Legislative Branch to streamline, also.

In the meantime, the problems mount.

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post has never been a fan of the Bush administration in the best of times, but now, in hard times, he was devastating when he asked, "Is President Bush the leader of our government, or is he just a right-wing talk-show host?" Dionne quoted Bush at his March 21st press conference as W. wondered aloud why there were 11,000 Katrina-relief trailers sitting unused in Arkansas, having cost as much as $430 million. Dionne's snapping point was that Bush is in charge; he's not supposed to talk about problems, he's supposed to fix them.

Some will no doubt dismiss Dionne as an ideological liberal and a partisan Democrat, but it's harder to dismiss Bill Kristol and his similar comments. On the March 5 edition of "Fox News Sunday," Kristol had this to say:

"I think it's become in people's minds an emblem of an administration that just isn't as serious about the competent execution of the functions of government as it should be. And I'm struck talking to conservatives and Republicans. They agree with the President on basic political philosophy. They agree with his basic policy agenda. But they're worried that they just don't seem to be able to execute as well as they should."

Is Kristol wrong, along with Dionne? Maybe. But as the polls show, the American people seem to share those pundits' concerns, as the declining numbers for both Bush and the Republican Congress indicate. To put it another way, the damage done to Republican fortunes by a bunch of boring acronyms -- FEMA, CFIUS, FEMA, DOEd, NCLB -- is likely to manifest itself on Election Days to come.

To be sure, the Walker Plan is no automatic panacea. It would help for example, if the federal government were able simply to fire bad employees. But once again, additional reforms, such as the modernization of civil service, would be easier to achieve in the wake of Walker's blueprint -- fewer cooks to spoil the process-broth.

Eventually, this crisis of process will be solved. Eventually, the wolf comes to the door, the piper must be paid, the grim reaper demands his toll. And that's when the status quo collapses.

Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff in Colin Powell's State Department, made this point last year: "If something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence."

In other words, after a big enough disaster, there would be a huge rethink of the way that the federal government operates. But wouldn't it be nice if the rethink came in advance of the disaster, not after?

So that's the Walker Plan. It's controversial, sure to attract more critics and catcallers than a White House press conference.

But of course, there's something big to be said in the Walker Plan's favor: Those Presidents who made the federal government work, really work -- including Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman -- are remembered as great presidents, front and center in our pantheon. And as for the rest of our leaders, well, they are somewhere in the back, buried in the pack.

James Pinkerton is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a TCS contributing writer.



A better plan.
1. National Security
Homeland Security, Border control, Part of FBI

2. National Intelligence
CIA, NSA, NRO etc (Preferable combined into a new form of structure)
IE: Internal Security, External Security and Support group that handles both.

3. Foreign Relations
Foreign Trade

4. Justice
Law enforcement, part of FBI
Legal system

5. Science & Technology

6. Federal Support
National Parks

7. State support

Things like HUD should be dropped back to the state level where they belong. If a state needs help on an issue they would submit a request to the state support department on case by case bases. Many of the agencies need to be disbanded and their function handed back to the state local level.

As for braking up the CIA, NSA, FBI etc, the author was right…just get it over with.
Defense should have control of external security, Homeland controls internal.

An Even Better Plan
Reorganization of the Federal Government is not the answer. Government organizations are generally less competent than private organizations at ANY task. The only way to optimize government is to limit its role to those functions where there is no other viable alternative…such as defense, security and justice. This is pretty much what the founding fathers wrote into the US Constitution. It is to our country’s detriment that their wisdom has fallen from favor.

Corrective action requires a long term effort to accurately define and size the Federal Government role, and to manage an orderly transformation. In our short term oriented culture, leadership from our political arena is unlikely. Only the sustained efforts of our citizenry can bury the fantasies of citizen entitlement and government parentage, and thereby open the door to an era of efficient, effective and accountable governance.

More bright ideas
Here's an excellent idea for the improvement of government. Please don't thank me-- I'm not the first to think of it.

Don't appoint paid political flacks, industry stooges, religious zealots or the incompetent roommates and college chums of one's cronies to political office. Instead, appoint experts with some experience and integrity. You know, people who don't put politics above professional expertise.

Additionally, why not rule out as the director of vital regulatory bodies anyone whose background would imply they stand to benefit either by the destruction of the agency's mission or by its transformation into something else entirely? This would seem both simple and obvious.

I can think of lots of prudent operating principles along these lines. I wonder why our leaders can't.

No Subject
Sure, the way to fix the government is to create 5 Homeland Security style bureaucracies. That'll certainly increase efficiency and lower cost.
/sarcasm off

The government's response to a problem is:

1. overreact - we've got to do something
2. appoint a commission to study the problem
3. continue what you're doing but throw more money at the problem
4. enlarge the bureaucracy to deal with the problem
5. raise taxes
6. diminish freedom

Re-organizing Leviathan is not the solution. Killing it is.

Fix the Gov't
Pinkerton's coverage of Walker's proposal misses one important aspect of the problem: the bureaucracy.
To my everlasting regret, I did not save direct evidence of the effective fifth column permanent government employees represent in defeating the agendae of elected officials, but I received evidence of it early in the first Bush Admin. Most employees work against the Admin.
Also, super secretaries will not solve the problem. Appointees frequently become captive to the lifers. Powell became captive of and rep. for State, as Rice increasingly appears.
Their fiefs become their constituency, not the people.
Government is too large, too self-aggrandizing.
If you support super sec'ys, spend a little time pondering what we have wrought with HSA and its tributaries. Efficiency? Accountability? Baah. EGTripp

The Genie wants to have another look at that map.

The Best Plan - A True Contract
Why not have elections to decide contracts and not people? Parties can offer voters a list of measures, itemizing the collective cost of each one to the nation and the total cost of their contract to each individual household based on that household's income. Moreover, at the beginning of every new mandate period, all legislation not necessary to implement the new contract is automatically repealed.

Spending, borrowing and taxing can't exceed amounts stated in the contract. If any of these do, the Federal Reserve System declares the contract in breach, and new elections must be held. As liquidated and punitive damages for breaching its contract with America, the breaching party must sit out the immediate two election cycles and disgorge any assets it owns into the national treasury, with a 180 day right of recovery in the Fed to recover any amounts transferred in bad faith in expectation of default.

Finally, as a hedge against bureaucratic sabotage, all civil service jobs except those at the Fed become "at will", and no agency or cabinet office will enjoy the certainty of existence beyond the current mandate period.

I realize this plan would require rewriting significant passages of the Constitution and the United States Code, but I can see no other way to bind men to their own law unless that law is not just constitutional, but also contractual.

a lot more to fix the problem
Although i agree with the article, to fix the system would need a lot more - get the lobbyists out of washington, reform the electoral, reform the senate. what is in place right now makes no sense in today's reality, and even more in tomorrow's. democracy has become a word with no meaning in America's political ring.

Localize Control and Equalize Distribution
Local solutions for any issue are always better than anything that comes from inside the beltway but the federal government consumes about two-thirds of our tax burden. Right now your congressman always has the excuse that he would like to help but there are 534 others that stopping him or her.

Return control over one-half of per capita portion of the total federal budget to the congressman. This would bring the responsibility and accountability over federal spending to the individual congressman.

Replace all federal taxation with a consumption tax on all retail products and services (with no exceptions) that treats each individual citizen equally.

Give your community a reason to be involved in the politics of the federal government and some control over their share of resources.



Pointy headed bureaucrats
Yeah, the entrenched bureaucracy can be a problem.

The worst one, for sheer wastefulness and destructiveness, has been the Pemtagon one supporting the Cold War military industrial complex. Once the Evil Empire collapsed it immediately set itself toward looking for a fresh justification for its existence. And it has behaved so boorishly the desired condition has been self-fulfilling: for the next lifetime we will have no shortage of enemies.

China is an excellent example of an enlightened nation-- one that will do anything necessary to make money, not war. We'll try our damnedest to provoke them, and may well succeed.

So Tom Daschle was wrong when he proclaimed that the only way to proffesionalize, was to federalize?

Corporations have discovered that trying to be all things to all people is good way to ensure that you are mediocre at everything.

The govt is involved in way to much. Let's reduce govt to those functions which it has proven competence in, and let the private sector handle everything else.

big problems
Who gets to decide who is an industry hack, and who is a person with experience?
People from your party are experienced, from the other party are hacks?

rb is just demonstrating typical Washington politics, my guys are experts, your guys are hacks.

If I had a monstrous, Herculean mess, the first thing I'd want to do is see what we've got. I think there ought to be some kind of taxonomy of the names of government functions and a very, very short reference to what they do. Put the names and more specific info at another layer. Let everyone see the whole thing. I don't think anyone can see the whole government.

Then, highlight in red the government offices that are mentioned in the constitution by at least a word.

I think we ought to declare a crisis right now and stop all further developments and play out anything that can and then dissolve it. About all this there will be arguments. But at least if there were a complete listing of everything, we could see it. I know, it would be huge. But a good outline would simplify it just enough.

Thank you! (nm)

Who is to judge?
No, there are good criteria for making the distinction. Throwing a guy out, for instance, with a proven track record for performance in crisis mitigation (James Lee Witt), only to replace him with a failed horse show judge, is IMO malfeasance in the executive office.

Anyone with personnel experience would know the difference. So they could have gotten someone for about 26K who could make a more professional choice to head FEMA than the one that our C-in-C made.

More Centralization?
More centralization of power is not the answer to solving the problems of our government not working. Centralization of power does not work, and it never has particularly worked. A Secretary of the Economy? Communist countries have those.

Government does not work because it is nothing but bureaucracy upon bureaucracy. Nobody is in charge, nobody is responsible, and nothing gets done. Just to get a simple passport, you have to show up before 3:30, because the person who takes the passport apparently won't put it into a file any time after 3:30. This is absurd, but it is the way of bureaucracy.

The government does not need to be more centralized, it needs to be decentralized. ANd it needs to abide by power laws organization, which is how all self-organized systems in the universe are structured. What this means is that the federal government needs to be very much smaller than it is, with far less power than it has. THe states should then have more power, and local governments should have the most. THis will allow for the most efficient government -- as it allows for the most efficient organization of all other things in the universe.

This would then allow for the government to be responsible for its actions. THere would be no question about who to investigate in Louisiana and New Orleans (the governor and the mayor and the legislatures) about what happened after the hurricane hit. If we cared to actually investigate what happened, the entire Louisiana government, state and local, would be in prison where they belong for the massive corruption that exists down there. The aftermath of the hurricane only brought to light how corrupt it is, in how the entire situation was handled. Unfortunately, the federal government was involved, which has resulted in blame being able to be passed on so that nobody is responsible except for the one sacrificial scapegoat, who refused to take his scapegoating lying down.

Walker & Pinkerton should take a walk
Good points zat, thanks. Our once-sleek ship of state is sorely afflicted with metastasizing layer on layer of the barnacles of greedy government functionaries and professional pols which threaten to sink it. Playing org chart games just makes matters worse and delays the real cure.

Only two of the 5 proposed megadepartments should be kept, National Security & Justice. (Even those two could well be replaced, to advantage, by private efforts with a little thot and experimentation.) Ever heard of "ennumerated powers"? The Feds need to be careened and scraped clean back to the bare constitutional provisions.

All other matters will be automatically and spontaneously handled by more efficient and effective private efforts, or at worst, the states who also need their own rejuvenating reductions.

Theory versus practice
I think it is important to give respect to people who have spent their lives working within and successfully addressing the issues of government. Walker is a veteran of battles to make govt better, and thus his ideas deserve to be seen in the context of successful incrementalism. We on the outside of the battlefield have ideas to offer, but little experience in actually getting things done within the actual government.

Not to say that the dialogue is unimportant, but rather that a solid perspective is important to understanding what is needed and what is realistic.

Simpler (smaller, more streamlined, more consistent, less confused) is generally better than not, especially when things need to be accomplished. Bureaucracies are often self-sustaining, self-important, self-aggrandizing, and unaccountable. Transparency and streamlined leadership roles are good ideas for addressing this...

Sometimes working within an organization only blinds you to its incompetencies. You get taken in by the way it works, and all you can see is the way it has always been. You become convinced that tinkering around the edges will help, even though tinkering around the edges never has. All the tinkering around the edges in education have done nothing but make our educational system worse and worse. We have begun doing with education what he suggested with the federal government, in centralizing it more, and all we have gotten is worse schools.

But I do agree we need more transparency. Unless it has to do with intelligence around national security, we should always know everything our government does at all times at all levels of government. The Congress should be forced to post on the internet all proposed bills the minute they are proposed. Further, we need a real media to cover such things. Of course, the first can be solved by law. THe second can only be solved by the market and media reforms (perhaps this is where the blogosphere would really come into its own, if we could get government transparency at the level I"m suggesting).

In any case, sometimes working inside is precisely the worst thing to have done to have proper perspective. Sometimes you have to have an outside eye. Of course, it is best when there are as many perspectives as possible. Walker should consider outside perspectives in addition to his own inside perspective and see what happens when he combines them. In either case, I still stand by my vehement opposition to greater centralization. It is a rotten idea that has been tried repeatedly in the world and shown to be a rotten idea.

It will collapse of its own weight
The tendency for all governments is to aggrandize power and grow...much like a cancer. Government exists by threat of force, violence and coercion, plundering the individuals that are within its grasp--virtually all of us. Attempts at reform and "de-sucking" it do nothing to thwart the monster--its sheer mass and momentum crush all that get in its way.
The simple truth is that government will follow the path of a cancer. That is it will kill and die along with its host.
The ultimate reform of the US government, which with age becomes more violent, totalitarian and clumsy, will be brought about by implosion and loss of legitimacy rather than reform. Being top heavy, inflexible and just plain stupid it will topple of its own weight ala the USSR. Until then a low profile serves best.

Pinkerton makes two implicit suppositions in his piece, that the federal government: 1) should and 2) could perform the myriad tasks it has arrogated. Once these suppositions are established, any number of suggestions for improvement can be entertained, many of which even sound appealing.

At best Pinkerton's suggestions are likely to achieve little more than Al Gore's "reinventing government" initiative, a boondoggle that accomplished absolutely nothing. At worst, they allow a further slip toward tyranny. I'm all for destroying our enemies in the most efficient manner possible. I also want to live free. If the Federal government limited its reach to powers enumerated in the Constitution, we would have both.

Its the system stupid
The reason cronies and hacks are in there is because the system permits it. The author is correct in stating that bad system can overpower even the best intentions. The system guides the behaviour, the players are secondary. The biggest changes should be in the direction of scope and size, rather than re-grouping. They've got their hands into some many things causing so much disruption and inefficiency it isn't funny any more. We don't want a centraly planned economy, "thats what they do in Russia", and you can see how well that worked. What we call goverment now is patches on top of patches. Its a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Problem is, I don't see a way out other than CTRL-ALT-DEL.

Your fix is a tempting one, and I've often been inclined toward the same view. But anarchy only means thatthe predators in every society would find it even easier to prevail than under our own redundant, ridiculous, outmoded and cumbersome system. So like it or not, most informed opinion is that we need to work with it toward changing it.

The obvious, glaring fault is that we have legalized bribery. NO progress will be made until elections are funded entirely by public money, and that all candidates are to be barred from using even their own money on ads, etc. What we have witnessed since the advent of the television age is an increasing tendency for slick presenters and manipulators to put their candidate in a favorable light to get him/her elected. The dumb bunnies who trouble get out and vote really have little concept of what sorts of policies might actually be in their best interest. Usually the dork they vote for reminds them of someone trustworthy, like their preacher.

This is because they don't trust themselves to wrap their heads around concepts of governance. They seem to mostly think that wiser heads know better than they do.

It's also because between the job and the kiddies, they don't have ten minutes a week when they're both alert and not doing chores. We've entrusted our form of government to amateurs-- the voting public. This kind of crap never happened under the monarchy.

low profiles
"But if everyone had kept a low profile, then who would have torn down the wall?"

The people that tore the wall down did so after the real Soviet threat had greatly diminished, if not evaporated. The Hungarians tried direct confrontation with the USSR in the 50's and were hammered badly. The USSR collapsed of its own weight and AFTER that happened people felt safe enough to assume a higher profile and level of activism.

If one thinks that he or she has the temerity and stomach for taking on the the power of the US government then I say good for them and go for it. Remember, the state has an absolute monopoly on the use of force, coercion and violence--in short they can do things to you that are illegal and they will get away with it. You and I on the other hand are forced to either quietly comply or use the court system which is after all just another branch of the government and not inclined to cut its own throat. Taking on the system ala V sounds great but the reality of this leading to success is remote--especially given the lethality and penetrability of the state's means. For more thorough information on this see The Tyranny of Good Intentions by Roberts and Constitutional Chaos by Napolitano. In the meantime when it comes to the state the individuals best choice is a low profile--Martha Stewart can attest to this.

BTW: My comments did not refer to actions between individuals such as you have outlined...only to those between agents of the state and individuals. Remember, standing up to another individual is a much less daunting proposition than doing so against a violence prone government and in some situations one that justifies the use of lethal force. I did not advocate rolling over to the immoral bullies that pass us by in the course of our lives. One important note here: The common thieves and bullies we encounter only intermittently and we do have the ability to defend ourselves against them; the state, on the other hand, is an entity that is in our lives permanently and against which defense is severely limited. We cannot "opt out" of the state without risk of personal destruction. While principles are important, when it comes to the state self-preservation is equally important for most of us--hence my comment on maintaining a low profile.

Kinds of Low Profiles
There are kinds of low profiles which can, in the long run, have massive ramifications. We can create what are known in chaos theory as butterfly effects. Small purturbations can, over time, become large effects in a complex system.

One way is talking to people about your ideas. Dare to have political discussions. Hang out at Starbucks and talk to people about political issues. That will get them talking, etc. Most of the revolutions of the 20th century started off in coffee houses.

FOr those of us who are writers, one can write books and essays and get ideas out there. The key is getting at least some people talking about things -- this will lead, in the long run, to changes.

In the linear dynamical world of Newtonian phyics, we are told that one small person cannot make a difference. This has been a great boon to totalitarian-minded people and governments. However, the world is not that way. It is in fact a nonlinear dynamical world, a complex system, and that understanding of the world shows us that even the smallest of people can have a huge difference on the world. It's time, though, that we got those butterfly wings flapping among more people than just ourselves!

Exactly right! Ideas and principles quietly spoken and forcefully written have a huge impact.
Picking up arms and molotovs, except as the bitter last resort, is a quick way to the grave and obscurity.

TCS Daily Archives