Friday, September 16, 2005

The size of government

The first article blames the apparently slow response to hurricane Katrina on "small government." The second article blames bloated, inefficient government.

Consider government agencies not as organizations but as organisms:

Government agencies are competing with each other for resources. Given limited resources, government agencies face natural selection. Natural selection does not mean that the best and most useful agencies will survive, it means that the most efficient at survival will survive. For a natural example, the mosquito, the antithesis of a good and useful animal, is dramatically successful. In terms of government, those agencies that are well connected and popular can garner benefits to themselves out of proportion to their actual impact. For example, who has heard of the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates 42% of our transportation? Who has heard of NASA?

Government agencies are also competing with their hosts, or rather, they are trying to strike a balance with their hosts. Given enough parasites, any host will begin hunting them down. If a government agency gets too burdensome, the host will either shed it completely or cut it down to size. A natural response is for agencies to break themselves up. Large agencies, created for some purpose of efficiency, will dissolve into many smaller agencies, neither of which is large enough to attract undo attention. An exception would be the military, which is constantly forced to reunite, thereby keeping it in the sites of the host, even though other, far-less-useful organizations take comparably substantial chunks of the budget.

Government agencies pursue a variety of survival strategies. Some, such as the lowly Federal Railroad Administration, maintain a low-key helpful approach, much like intestinal bacteria. Some seek out crises. Some even create work for themselves. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers created the definition of "wetland", and then proceeded to protect them. In terms of benefiting the host, government agencies span the spectrum from vital to fatal. But no agency fails to do at least one useful thing, one reason to justify its existence.

But the problem is that, when things get tight, when the host is fighting the parasites, it is not the most helpful that will survive, it is the most efficient. Thus, in any small-government Putsch, we will lose more good material than bad. My conclusion: small government has left us both weak and bloated. The problem goes far beyond the total size, just like health is much more than a certain weight. We could have half the government we currently have and still be dreadfully burdened. We could have twice the government we currently have, and be ten times as effective for half the cost. I want to buy an effective and efficient government. No one seems to be selling.


Blogger Noumenon said...

I don't know about the metaphor of natural selection, since I'm not sure that agencies have consistent mechanisms for reproduction or inheriting traits. In fact, they would seem to arise initially out of our attempts at intelligent design.

Perhaps it's sexual selection that's the better metaphor. That's how you get organisms that don't seem well adapted to their given function, but still enjoy reproductive success.

I believe I have heard of the federal railroad administration in the context of regulatory capture. <does a lot of unnecessary Google research> No, that was the ICC. But I thought I would have heard of something with such a broad reach. Why should the FRA regulate 42% of transportation when rail transport moves only 13 percent of total tonnage? <more unnecessary googling, beyond the point of all reason> I guess they're going by ton-miles instead of revenue. Anyway, it appears FRA's main responsibilities are railroad crossing safety and Amtrak.

Government agencies pursue a variety of survival strategies. Some, such as the lowly Federal Railroad Administration, maintain a low-key helpful approach, much like intestinal bacteria.

We could create a whole parasite ecosystem from the government -- the ones that devour formerly effective organs and take over their role, the ones that lead us blithely over the cliff.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Yep, by ton-miles. Railroads tend to transport low-value high-volume products (like grain), whereas other vehicles transport things like Ipods.

1:42 AM  

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