The Need for Practical Wisdom in the Federal Bureaucracy

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Washington DC - Capitol Hill: United States Ca...

Washington DC – Capitol Hill: United States Capitol (Photo credit: wallyg)

With the massive growth of the federal government comes growth in a complex bureaucratic structure that creates multiple layers of administration between government agencies and what they are designed to do. In the 1950s it was relatively easy to begin the interstate highway system–the government was more simply run and the number of “checkers” was reasonable. These days it takes years from conception to finish to build a small limited access route around a growing city. This is not only an issue of environmental regulation–it is an issue of paperwork, finding the right codes, administrator egos, and too many layers of management. In addition, any bureaucracy operates on a system of strict rules. In the case of the federal government, these rules are said to be necessary to protect the public from fraud, from unsafe products, from incompetent health care, or from shoddy construction on buildings and roads. Rules are essential to any organization–it would be irrational to deny that. People, left to themselves, are not often an orderly lot, and efficient, competent operation requires rules. However, beyond rules that are absolutely essential for safety or another vital value, rules often get in the way of common sense. A needed highway may be delayed by the failure to fill out some obscure paperwork that very few people knew about at the time. People in a local area may realize that what they request is badly needed, but someone in the bureaucracy nicks the request. Often, the requests of local people who know the needs of the communities in  which they live are overridden by someone who has never set foot in a particular community. The current trend in the federal government seems to be to follow the model of private business and focus on efficiency. Admittedly the federal government could do a better job of being efficient. However, efficiency should not trump service, and federal supervisors from upper management to “ordinary” employees should be given enough discretion to use practical wisdom to react in the proper way to a particular situation. As Aristotle pointed out, practical wisdom has to do with the local, the particular, rather than with an overarching universal. It is all too easy for federal officials to get caught in their abstract language and multiple abbreviations and lose sight of the very people that pay their salaries and whom they are to serve in a caring, responsible way. Discretion in spending of money should be broadened. Civil service should be reformed in such a way that seniority does not imply that an incompetent person or someone abusing his authority cannot be fired. But there should also be room for dissent and questioning of the decisions of middle and upper management as long as it is done in a respectful way. For example, suppose a federal employee lives in a community where a new bridge is supposed to be built. The employee knows that the road over which the bridge will be build will be re-routed so as to avoid the need for a bridge–at cost savings to the community. Higher federal officials say, “Congress appropriated the money for a bridge, and a bridge you shall have.” What would be wrong with local federal employees who know the situation informing their managers and those managers going up the chain of command so that Congress can allow the community to use the money appropriated for the bridge for re-routing the road? It is not insubordination to question a ruling. Not following a ruling after a final decision has been made would be wrong–but questioning if there is good reason to question should be a right of any American citizen including one who works for the federal government.

Some government programs work well; most do not. Why not work with those who do not to improve them, and if they are not viable, eliminate them? Federal programs, like federal employees, seem to be self-perpetuating no matter how useless or incompetent they are. This demoralizes good employees and empowers the cynical. Instead of focusing on “Which set of rules must we follow now,” focus on “What is the best thing to do in this particular situation?” The best thing will depend on the particularities of the situation and will require practical wisdom, learned by experience, rather than a list of rules to reach the best decision. This implies good observation and evaluation skills as well as the skills to creatively find ways to stay within the rules while stretching them to fit the limits of a particular situation. Experienced local officials should be trusted, unless they have proven untrustworthy, to make prudent decisions. Normally middle and upper management should, if sufficient funds are available, yield to the suggestions of the people who know an area and its problems best. Civil service, designed in the Chester Arthur administration to prevent political favoritism, should not be used to maintain the incompetent, the arrogant, and those managers who harm others by their laziness in performing their tasks. At the local level, conversations in the workplace between different units should be as open as possible so that “the right hand knows where the left hand goes.” Wise decisions are based on the most accurate and thorough information possible. Hopefully federal employees can then go beyond mere rule-following and exercise their discretion

Anti War Activism, Patriotism, and the Federal Government

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Antiwar.com

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So the government has raided the homes of antiwar activists in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Carolina. Shades of the 1960s, anyone? During the Vietnam era, antiwar activists discovered the cost of questioning the military-industrial complex. Now I am not saying I think the 1960s anti war activists were saints. Some were losers such as member of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. But they were correct in opposing a needless war. And it was wrong of the United States government to harass anti war groups simply because they opposed the war in Vietnam, a position they have every right to espouse and defend. The Constitution, after all, guarantees freedom of speech.

The Iraq War was based on lies, involved attacking a country that did not attack us, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and an Iraqi government that is friendly to U.S.-hostile Iran. The Afghanistan War has done little to stop the Taliban, and successes against Al Qaeda have been due to a combination of good intelligence, effective use of drones, and small special forces units, rather than large scale military forces. The CIA’s original plan to use smaller units to hunt down terrorists was the correct idea, but the Bush Administration opted for all out war. Mr. Obama, albeit under intense pressure from the military establishment, opted to continue the war with an increase of troops. That will be a never-ending war, or at least it will continue until the U.S. is too bankrupt to support it. What is so anti-patriotic about opposing the war in Afghanistan? One can admit that the Taliban are evil in their treatment of women and in their cruelty in general without supporting a quagmire. Opposition to the war is not support of terrorism. Yet the United States government seems to think so, just as it did during the Vietnam era.

Paul Craig Roberts has argued that after these raids the United States is already a police state. I would not go that far yet, but they are a step in the wrong direction. So-called conservatives, instead of supporting wars and demonizing supporters of wars, ought to return to the traditional conservative view that the United States should focus on dealing with its own problems and not be involved in foreign wars. Such wars only increase the power and influence of the central government and are not good for the country. War is necessary only when it is clearly in the national interest of the United States. And opposition to war is just as patriotic, if not more so, than support of war. A true conservative will not support federal police forces entering homes because people oppose the position of the United States government–unless so-called conservatives would rather emulate Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. De facto, if conservatives support a police state that persecutes anti-war activists, they are implicitly supporting the tactics of every dictator in history. With “conservatives” like that around, true conservatives do not need liberal enemies–they have enough in their own camp.

The Nanny State and Big Government

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Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four term...

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Many Americans (not all, thank God) are spoiled. They don’t mind selling their children and grandchildren to a world of financial ruin as long as they are comfortable. They desire benefits from government without understanding the cost. So the nation is in debt to a degree that would have been unimaginable even under the free-spending George W. Bush administration. How did the country get into this mess? How did the traditionally hard working American people turn into a group of soft, spoiled brats who believe the government is there to give them things?

The problem started with the Great Depression. Instead of allowing the private sector to correct the economic downturn, as President Harding did in 1919, first President Hoover, and to a much greater degree President Franklin D. Roosevelt, tried to end the Depression with massive federal intervention. Despite the claim by liberals that the New Deal helped to end the Depression, unemployment was high up until the boom due to World War II. Artificially inflating wages led companies to lay off more workers, which led to less spending, which led to more of an economic downturn–it was a vicious cycle. The jobs programs, to give them credit, resulted in fine roads and beautiful buildings, but did little to lessen unemployment. But as permanent federal benefits were put in place (even though there were state benefits such as old age pensions so that older people were not left destitute), Americans increasingly saw the government’s function to give them things–at first jobs, later money, health care coverage, and other benefits.

Even after Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy continued Roosevelt’s federal benefits, federal spending after World War II was generally under control. Eisenhower balanced the budget three times. But the largest expansion of the federal government in history took place with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Medicare, Medicaid, federal housing programs, and huge expenditures on welfare only made worse the public attitude that the government was a “nanny state” whose function is to take care of people’s physical needs. Programs that would have done more good at the local level were in the hands of distant bureaucrats, and a permanent underclass dependent on welfare payments was created.

But the government has also been guilty of corporate welfare. The unholy alliance between business and government began with the Whigs’ strong support of the new industries springing up with the Industrial Revolution and continued with the Republican Party’s alliance between the federal government, the railroads, and the banks. It was mainly the tension between the industrial North and its alliance of government and industry and the agricultural South that led to the War between the States (slavery, which was supported by the majority of the public in both the North and South, was not the primary issue over which the war was fought). Industrialism triumphed, and the unholy alliance led to numerous scandals beginning in the Grant administration. Today people vote for the presidential candidate and congressional candidates whom they believe will improve the economy. This is also a position that the government can give the people things–this time, a sound economy. Although some government regulation of business is required because people are not saints, the revolving door between big business and government officials only makes matters worse. Overall the economy tends to move in cycles that are only predictable in part due to their nature as dynamic, chaotic systems. The government can do a lot to help wreck the economy, but generally what it does best beyond essential regulation is to stay out of business. But people believe that one of the chief roles of government is to guarantee a good economy–and voters become prostitutes. It is just as bad for voters on the right to “vote their pocketbooks” as it is for voters on the left to vote due to their desire for more government benefits. But between the two, I prefer the right–at least they recognize that government does more harm than good to business.

Americans need to realize that concentrations of power and money tend to corrupt and tend to bankrupt. There are only so many resource available for people to share, and the government cannot keep spending at the rate it does on benefits and job programs (and defense!) without the Chinese eventually calling the United States in on its debt. When that happens, God help us. Perhaps then families will realize that they must work for themselves and for the good of their local communities instead of receiving handouts from a nanny government. They may have no choice. The sad thing is that such a scenario may be a good thing–it may be the only way to restore virtue to those in the United States who have been spoiled by a sense of entitlement.

The Neverending Warfare State

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Oval Office

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For anyone who believes that the so-called “withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq” means the end of the Iraq War for the United States or the end of American and Iraqi casualties, you can also believe I have terraformed the planet Mars. Mr. Obama has been a huge disappointment in foreign policy for anyone who opposes continual U. S. engagements in places it ought not to be. President Eisenhower, in his January 1961 Farewell Address, warned of the dangers of the growing power of “the military-industrial complex.” What many Americans don’t realize through the fog of war rhetoric is that many people profit from war. The defense industry profits. The workers in the defense industry benefit, for they keep their jobs. A small-time defense contractor told me once, “I love Republicans,” since Mr. Bush had pushed the United States into a needless and costly war in Iraq. But Democrats do no better, as Mr. Obama shows. In the end, they also yield to the forces of the military-industrial complex. It is dangerous for a country to have a large portion of its work force in both the armed forces and in the defense industry. This situation only pushes the United States into further military adventurism–a prospect it cannot afford. The short-term pain of a smaller standing army and a smaller defense industry will be outweighed by the long-term gains of a smaller budget deficit and a more diverse economy. In addition, the risk to freedom resulting from a nation have a large standing army would be reduced. Mr. Obama could keep his promise and withdraw all U. S. forces from Iraq. He could do better and withdraw all U. S. forces from Afghanistan, and South Korea. Closing European and Asian bases would be helpful as well. If a massive reduction in U. S. defense spending does not become reality soon, the U. S., like the old Soviet Union of the 1990s, will spend itself, if not into disappearing, into becoming a third world country (especially if China and Japan refuse to buy U. S. bonds to finance the deficit). War is a waste–of soldiers’ and civilians’ lives, health, and productivity. I say to my fellow conservatives: it is a conservative position to oppose the military-industrial complex–what, after all, is more big government than that alliance between the federal government and the defense industry? Where else is there such a concentration of power, power that conservatives claim they eschew? Conservatives, libertarians, and anti-war liberals should ban together in opposing the constant state of war in which the United States has fallen. I recommend that everyone take a look at http://www.antiwar.com and read the articles from an alliance of people from all sides of the political spectrum who desire the United States to withdraw from current wars and stay out of future ones.

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