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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bureaucracies must die

Over at Urbanagora, Billy Joe Mills has a piece up criticizing liberals for trying to use inefficient methods, such as welfare and the minimum wage, to help the disadvantaged, particularly African Americans.
"Progressives" have always had good intentions; unfortunately they have also always had no clue what they were doing. What often seems progressive, like raising the minimum wage, supporting labor unions, big box ordinances, fair trade coffee (see Brian below), etc, ends up harming the very people who are the objects of the aid. When government gets involved massive, inefficient bureaucracies are created which even when they work, as with welfare, do more harm than good. Non-free market based aid creates larger bureaucracies and fewer benefits, a dual disaster.
I happen to agree with him in a lot of respects. Entitlement program such as welfare (that old conservative boogeyman) are temporary solutions to much larger problems. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and pretty soon he's got his own seafood business.

The problem isn't with government programs themselves, however, but with how they've traditionally been run. Large government bureaucracies are just about the worst things there are: inefficient, wasteful and woefully unaccountable. Even when given a good idea, they tend to screw things up. But why do things have to be this way? We have thousands of multi-billion-dollar organizations in this country that run efficiently and smoothly — they're called corporations.

I'd love to see some government programs closely monitored and evaluated on an ongoing basis and judged solely by results. You know, the way things work in the real world. If something doesn't work, you knock it off and try something different. Rather than, you know, just spending, spending, spending until Congress takes the budget away.

Imagine a government agency tasked with helping the poor and given the directive (and leeway) to function as a corporation rather than a standard bureaucracy. Imagine a research and development department, a marketing department, an information technology department — all with the goal to help people, rather than to make money, and all accountable for producing concrete, verifiable results. If someone isn't performing, you fire them and hire a new person. If an idea (like welfare) doesn't work, you ditch it and try something else.

We're lucky enough to be witnessing a trial of this idea right now. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now has an endowment of more then $30 billion, much more than the United Nations' World Health Organization. Here's their stated goal: "In developing countries, it focuses on improving health, reducing extreme poverty, and increasing access to technology in public libraries. In the United States, the foundation seeks to ensure that all people have access to a great education and to technology in public libraries. In its local region, it focuses on improving the lives of low-income families."

Almost more important than the money is Bill Gates himself. One of the greatest businessmen in American history will now be dedicating his time and energy to helping others. And how he's doing that is a lesson on how government can do they same. Gates is spreading his money widely, trying to create the most effect with each dollar and trying to find out what works and what doesn't. The foundation is supporting work into malaria vaccines, paying for thousands of disadvantaged to go to college, installing state-of-the-art computer labs in poor schools, helping increase distribution of vaccines to poor children... it's attacking the problems of poverty and early mortality at their source, rather than trying futilely to deal with them later in life.

Even better, they're ruthless with their grant money. Bill and Melinda personally inspect the results of many of the programs they're funding, and if something isn't working, the money gets shut off. Why continue spending if you don't see immediate and positive results?

Imagine if our government worked this way.

Of course, some will use this as an example of why we should leave private enterprise to tackle these problems rather than government. After all, if Gates and others like him are out there, why does the state have to get involved?

Well, the Bush administration has done has made it abundantly clear that conservatives aren't capable of getting rid of it the big government they're always railing against. Quite to the contrary, Bush has increased the federal government to its largest size ever. So we may as well work with what we've got and try to evolve government to the point where we can actually accomplish some of our stated goals.


Anonymous MrIzzy said...

Yes, this would be quite a sight to see. however, who would provide the oversight and direction necessary for a large-scale government project? It's long been said, quite often from your you yourself, that the greatest form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. Well, that's exactly what the Gates Foundation is.

Despite what Mr. Bush seems to think, the US government is not. Ultimately, the government as an entity cannot do much to confront poverity besides provide money to the situation. Of course, individuals in positions to direct and utilize that money can...but those positions always seem to fill themselves with people appointed by the new president, director, etc. And once you have a rotating cast of characters (and philosophies), you have a beauracracy.

How about we just appoint someone king?

Blogger Mandasaurus said...

Non-profits, like the government, are notorious for being run poorly as do schools. Part of the problem with such structures is the promotion ladder.

For instance, if you're a great teacher you become an administrator. But the ability to engage a class of children is extraordinarily unrelated to the ability to manage staff, budget, market, and plan for an entire school. The mismatch of people and positions can make people crazy.

Also there is a (possibly) useful federal agency here to help: The Government Accountability Office. (

Anonymous P. Pirx said...

Would be nice to get a bureaucracy perform like corporations, but the chances aren't too good. The problems are numerous, not the least of which is that (in democracy) the beneficiaries of government programs are voters as well. Any program creates its own constituency (even when one didn't exist before) and said constituency will fight tooth and nail to keep the program going, regardless of whether the program performs any useful function (anybody remembers why we've wool subsidy?).

Now, one may say that, with the exception of a small number of programs which address broad communities, most "program constituencies" are not very big, thus their electoral weight is slight. Well, not quite so. When you kill (or just touch) a program which benefits, say, 1% of the population, you earn the undying enmity of this 1%. And (that's important) you do not, in general, earn the support of the remaining 99% since they, for the most part, don't care. So, for a politician this is a net loss and in a society which is so evenly split that fractions of a percent can determine elections, any such net loss will be avoided.

Bill and Melinda can be ruthless and efficient since they do not need the support of the recipients of their largesse to keep going. They're, just as Mrizzi said, benevolent dictators. And yes, benevolent dictatorship is a very good form of government, the problem is only what you do when sometimes it turns out not to be very benevolent.

Democracy, to begin with was not established based on the belief that this is the government which can do the most good. Rather, that this is the government that is the most limited in causing harm. One can hope for more than this, but expecting much more would've been unrealistic.

Blogger Billy Joe Mills said...

OK, it took me a few days, but I have now posted a follow up on this issue. I think that it's an incredibly important one and deserves a lot of attention. Thanks for your response to it, you have forced me to think deeper on the issue.

Billy Joe Mills

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