Economist Herbert Stein has a metalaw named after him, which goes like this: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." Economic bubbles, therefore, tend to be self-correcting, and eventually equilibrium is restored. Inevitably, this implies that government action is going to be more trouble than it's worth. Government, of course, doesn't see it that way. Then again, government is self-perpetuating, and the Executive Branch, in particular, works diligently to make sure it does go on forever, in compliance with Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

[I]n any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

We have, therefore, bureaucracy unto infinity, and perhaps beyond.

But what if we didn't have to? Smitty contemplates an alternate universe:

Musical chairs, played properly, are a software fencepost error turned into a game. So long as we deem it morally correct to engage in deficit spending and pass on debt to the next victim, and the music is playing, life is good. Thus, until we've improved the moral perception, the situation remains intractable.

The Iron Law of Bureaucracy remains an ugly truth, but I had an interesting idea. What if all entitlement programs had an expiry? In Smitty USA, no entitlement program could outlast the POTUS who signed it into law. In other words, I would require a Steel Law of Bureaucracy such that, periodically, the entire organization must be scrapped. All of the databases archived, all of the staff thanked for their interest in civil service, all of the recipients re-enrolled in the follow-on program, which begins from scratch, headquartered in a physically different location. The usual 10th Amendment argument against Federal implementation of entitlements applies. However, there may need to be a series of smaller steps in the effort to unwind the New Bad Deal.

Standing athwart this reform is Charles Julius Guiteau, who believed that his work on behalf of the 1880 presidential campaign of James A. Garfield entitled him to a high government post, consistent with the so-called "spoils" system — "to the victor belong the spoils" — which prevailed in Washington at the time. When such a post was not forthcoming, Guiteau shot President Garfield, four months into his term. Garfield died two months later; Congress, in response, passed a measure to put civil servants on a putative merit system.

Even then, though, you could see Pournelle's Iron Law taking shape. That civil-service law did not cover many government jobs at first, but outgoing Presidents were permitted to reclassify their appointees to fall under its provisions, thereby insuring that they had allies in the next administration. And the White House passed from Republican to Democratic control and back again, and back again and again, over the next four elections, with exactly the results you'd expect. Reform measures were not applied until 1978, which did little to curb the growth of bureaucracy.

Smitty's idea, however, relies not on the wisdom of Washington, but on the brilliance of nature:

The motive for such an overtly draconian regime would be to mimic Winter. Winter is a crucial season for rejuvenating nature. Elections provide a similar turning of the compost heap called Capitol Hill. Mandating infrequent transitions to wholly new bureaucratic systems would be one way to capture that natural cycle in the Executive Branch. Otherwise, the prostate-like growth of bureaucracy remains ... unchecked.

And yes, things die in the winter. They're supposed to. P. J. O'Rourke explains:

Death was invented so we could have evolution. The process of Darwinian selection does not work on things that don't die. If it weren't for death we would all still be amoebas and would have to eat by surrounding things with our butts.

Think of that as the Organic Law of Bureaucracy.

The Vent

  1 February 2010

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