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Why Big Government Can't Seal the Deal


Once upon a time, government was able to get things done. Big things. The space program, the Hoover Dam, and other big projects of the early 20th century were all conceptualized and completed in a short time frame that would be unfathomable today. Now, a much more modest project, the Obamacare website, has taken three whole years to create, and has debuted with so many bugs that it is practically unusable.  As the estimable Glenn Reynolds argues at USA Today, this is a natural consequence of government growth over the second half of the past century:

As it’s gotten bigger the federal government appears to have gotten less competent. Apollo was a success on its own terms, but the big government policies that followed — the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Cancer — have all been pretty much failures, sometimes disastrous ones.

Even Obama himself is evidence of this problem. His 2012 presidential campaign was famous for its mastery of technology, building up an electronic campaign infrastructure in just a few months that helped him win the election. But, of course, it wasn’t a government operation. Obama without the government — a technological success. Obama within the government — a technological embarrassment. The difference between success and failure here, as even Obama-haters will have to admit, wasn’t Obama. It’s more likely that a political campaign has clear goals, and lots of freedom to improvise, while a federal program is much more encumbered by law and bureaucracy.

We couldn’t agree more. We’ve long held that one of the key problems of the blue model is that as government grows bigger a proliferation of red tape and bureaucratic hurdles makes it more difficult to get things done. Perversely, this even applies to projects progressives like (Obamacare very much included). No wonder there are so few truly “shovel ready” projects today.

Read the whole thing.

[Hoover Dam photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • rheddles

    Looks more like Glen Canyon Dam to me.

    The space program and any dam are far smaller projects than controlling one sixth of the US economy and altering human behavior. Perfecting humanity is a big job. Only a progressive government can tackle it. Given enough power.


    • Reticulator

      Best comment of the day on the internet.

    • Mark Michael

      Yes, it is Glenn Canyon Dam. I visited it in 2004 and can attest to that. It’s near Page, AZ, a Navaho Indian town. It’s on the Navaho Reservation. A Navaho girl – college grad – was the tour guide for visiting the power plant down below. (It was a summer job, if I recall correctly.) It has 4 times as much concrete as Hoover Dam. Its reservoir is the same size as Hoover’s: Lake Powell v. Lake Mead. They carefully manage the two reservoirs to try to maximize the water usage.

      The subject at hand: Econ Prof Greg Mankiw, Chairman of Harvard’s Econ Dept. Years ago noted that of the 28 grad. school majors, the highest SAT scores go to the freest, most entrepreneurial disciplines and the lower scores to the more bureaucratic, gov’t.-dominated ones. Med school students now are in the lower half of the 28 majors. They used to be near the top years ago.

      Also, if selfless saints entirely populated a top-down Command economic set-up like what we’ll have with Medicare, Medicaid, ObamaCare, always stifles creativity, new inventions, entrepreneurial developments. F. A. Hayek’s work showed that prices are very efficient “information carrying” entities that allow the most efficient “scarce resource allocation” than any explicit, top-down scheme can have. There are literally hundreds of millions of prices in our health care industry. It does comprise 18% of our economy, after all.

  • jeburke

    It’s worse. Projects like the Norris or Hoover dam would be killed on the drawing boards by environmental regulations and lawsuits.

  • Reticulator

    In order to expand into new areas and take them over from the private sector, government has to promise more than it can deliver, otherwise people won’t see any reason to change. Bigger projects mean even more inflated promises are required. Add to that the corruption in a big government that has been long-standing (a lot of the New Deal era projects were done before corruption had become so well established) and you’re going to have problems like this.

  • Pete

    There’s something else here at play. You’re assuming big government fails because it grows too complex, too bureaucratic.

    That is true. But it is also true that government growth is a goal in-and-of itself for those in government for that means jobs, power, prestige for them — the common good be damned.

    As a result, a good part of government at the federal, state and even local levels parasitic leeching off productive society.

  • Anthony

    Government is not an abstraction; government is composed of people and framework; is Glenn Reynolds arguing by implication American people (generally) inside government no longer capable? Or, is he arguing that government has become most effective in servo-bureaucratic viscosity (all together something different)? He implies that inertia seems to increase geometrically as proposal size grows but dismisses bureaucratic ability to titrate right amount of laws, executive orders, regulations, etc. Has model changed or have people comprising framework developed differently?

    • John Stephens

      Government employees are no less capable now than they were back then, it’s just that their goals have changed. As an organization ages, it’s personnel become less interested in carrying out it’s original purpose, and more interested in ensuring their own wealth and comfort. It’s called Pournelle’s Iron Law, and it happens to corporations, churches, labor unions and bureaucracies alike. The problem is that bureaucracies are established and maintained by law, and reforming them is usually politically impossible.

      • Anthony

        Simply , you are describing power-preserving techniques (simplified by PIR’s prescription).

    • Andrew Allison

      Parkinson’s Law works everywhere (Mikhail Gorbachev), as does the Peter Principle (witness a former head of NSA conducting on off-the-record interview in public via cell phone).
      Herewith a recent admonition(paraphrased) from a DoD division director, “Nobody will notice how well you do your job, but failure to complete this bureaucratic task on time will be noticed immediately.”

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Does anyone really believe that the “Best and Brightest” are working for the government? While the military still gets large numbers of selfless patriots, the rest of government is filled with rent seekers, feather bedding labor gangs, and corrupt incompetents that would never cut it in the free market.

  • Corlyss

    “The difference between success and failure here, as even Obama-haters will have to admit, wasn’t Obama.”

    Surely you jest. Whose bright idea was it to “transform America?” Not the voters. Nobody believed he could do it or would do it. They were used to big promises come to pipsqueak half-hearted programs affecting a few. Nobody realized the depth of Obama’s ignorance and perversity or the extent of his minions ability to so co-opt big players that they willingly went like sheep to slaughter. The programs that cause the most fiscal and social mischief for the last 60 years, going all the way back to SCOTUS’ desegregation order, have been idiotic social engineering whose operating principle is that there is not end to the social good that government can impose top down. The social engineers don’t learn from their mistakes. To hear them tell it, they never made any.

    • Andrew Allison

      Seems to me that there are two huge, but distinct, failures on display here: the implementation of the system (for which Seibelious is directly responsible); and Obama’s failure to make sure that his, literally, signature legislation was a success.
      We may never know the reasons behind the former, but the latter was even more stupid than trying to pretend that he didn’t know NSA was bugging Merkel’s phone.

      • Corlyss

        Personally I think the Obamacare data aspects were doomed to fail because government doesn’t do any of this kind of thing very well. It too them over 30 years of effort to do Tax Systems Modernization, the closest thing I can think of in terms of size of population the system had to cover. I’ve been project counsel on one of those efforts. And I have a close friend who was going to be the CIO for CMS. His descriptions of the degree to which the Peter Principle was in operation, together with the fact that almost the entire office was populated with Affirmative Action hires whose deftness at office politics far exceeded their professional competence were hair-raising. He was hired from outside the establishment, so they isolated, neutralized, and expelled him like a virus. He left after 5 contention-filled months. The very things that make successful survivors within the government system seldom make for competent professionals. I don’t mind calling for pitchforks and ropes for the likes of Sibilius and Obama, but operationally speaking, they really aren’t to blame. It’s a cultural thang. I blame Obama for making it a goal with no hint of reality or humility coloring his ambitions.

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