In Praise of Incompetent Bureaucrats

We don't WANT bureaucrats to be super-smart or super-competent.

Hardly a day goes by without another news report of a bureaucrat doing something stupid.  Whether it's removing a child from his home because a vendor gave the kid a bottle of alcoholic lemonade by mistake; or State Department diplomats refusing to go to embassies in troubled countries; or TSA's ceaseless quest to strain at gnats while swallowing camels, there's no doubt that the Stupid Bureaucrat is a stock item of ridicule.

We often see politicians promising more responsive, consumer-oriented bureaucracies, as they reduce "waste, fraud, and abuse."  We even see union leaders complaining that government employees are not the sharpest tools in the drawer because they are underpaid: if only we'd raise their wages, we'd get a better class of worker in those spots.

Conventional wisdom could hardly be more wrong.  Our bureaucrats are not morons; quite the contrary.  They are in fact very, very good at what they do, and are getting better at it all the time.  What's more, their increasing level of professionalism and competence is a serious threat to our national health: we'd be much better off if most government minions were truly as incompetent and clueless as we think they are.

Let's take a quick tour through history to see why this is so.

To the Victor Goes The Spoils

Our Constitution discusses at great length the three branches of government we learned about in school: the Congressional, the Judicial, and the Executive.  The President (and Vice-President) have specific requirements for service, even down to the oath of office they must swear.  But the part of the government most people have actual interaction with hardly appears in the Constitution at all - namely, the bureaucrats in all the various agencies and departments.

The federal bureaucracy is somewhat of an odd hybrid of branches, since it's nominally part of the Executive branch answering to the President, but each agency is created and funded by an act of Congress.  So there is no direct Constitutional requirement of any kind to be an ordinary federal employee.

When our nation was founded, there were many posts to fill - customs officers, lighthouse-keepers, tax collectors and "revenue agents" of various kinds, even postmasters and mailmen.  Since these posts all technically answered to the President, it seemed logical for him to have the power to appoint them as well, which the various Presidents proceeded to do.  As long as the Presidency was occupied by a Founding Father, they mostly looked for the best man to fill the position, as you'd hope they would.

This changed with the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1829.  He considered that, since he had been elected by the people, he had a mandate to make sure that all levels of government obeyed his policies - and what better way to accomplish this than by appointing his political supporters through and through?  He sacked the current officeholders and started from scratch, giving all his political operatives nice cushy government jobs, and so on down the line.

This scheme went over so well in his party that it instantly became standard practice.  And it turned out to be good management too.

Abraham Lincoln used the Spoils System to excellent effect during the Civil War.  Even though a great many Americans opposed the war or wanted to end it with some sort of compromise, his appointments made sure that the entire federal government pulled together his way and ended up achieving complete victory.

A tremendous amount of Lincoln's preserved correspondence is from people writing him asking for a government job, so much so that he often complained about the burden to his friends.  Lincoln recognized the importance of his power of appointment and firing in accomplishing what he'd set out to do, however.  If he hadn't been so careful with making sure the right people were in the right positions high and low, he'd have failed as President.

However, if you aren't careful, there are inherent problems with making appointments on a purely political basis: you can wind up with some real crooks.  Ulysses Grant is generally remembered by history as a great general, a man who loved his country, and a personally honest man, but a dreadful president because of his lousy judgment in making appointments.

The chain of scandals that rocked the country during his administration make Bill Clinton look like a piker.  Following Grant's retirement, President Hayes was elected on a platform of clean government.  His administration botched the reforms and he did not run for re-election.

The Civil Service

By this time, the American people were fed up with political corruption in government appointments, but it took an assassination to get the Civil Service started.

President Garfield followed Hayes, and we'll never know what reforms he might have put in place.  Four months into his administration, he was shot by Charles Guiteau, who took out his anger on Garfield at being denied a government job.  Between the scandals of Grant's appointees and the assassination of Garfield over the same issue, the American people had had enough.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 created the system of bureaucracy that we have today.  No longer could Presidents appoint the government staffers of their choice, except at the very top.  Ordinary government workers were selected via the United States Civil Service Commission which created a battery of scientific aptitude tests and examinations over the years.

Today, it's flagrantly illegal to expect any sort of political position from a government civil servant, or make any sort of political demand on them at all.  The goal was to remove the politics from government employment and simply let the best-qualified people have the jobs.

Politics is Human Nature

That, however, is not at all what happened.  In a very real way, politics is human nature!  How many people do you know who are truly apolitical?  Any at all?

Almost everyone at least leans toward one party or another; and even those that don't have views on various political issues.  By removing the power of the president to hire and fire civil servants, the reformers did not remove politics from governance - all they accomplished was remove the control of politics from governance.

You see, Andrew Jackson was right - the president is elected on a platform of whatever policies he runs on, and does indeed have a mandate to try to put them into place.  But we've seen over the last few decades that no matter the electoral success of the president, it's almost impossible to change the direction of the bureaucracy.  How can we hold the president responsible for what government workers do when he can't fire them?

Ronald Reagan ran on a party platform that, among other things, called for the elimination of the entire Department of Energy.  He was elected in a landslide; if ever there was a mandate, that was it.  Yet thirty years on, the Department of Energy is still around.  What sort of chief executive does not have the simple power to shut down one of his lesser divisions?

In the old days of the spoils system, there was obviously corruption, but there were at least two natural limits to it.

The Buck Stops Here

First, in a very real way, the president was personally responsible for the behavior of the bureaucrats; after all, he himself appointed them all, and if necessary he had the power to reach down and give any one of them the boot at any time.  Today, in contrast, the bureaucracies don't have to answer to anyone.

How many times have we seen the CIA intentionally playing games with intelligence to try to make George Bush look foolish because they don't agree with him?  The opposition of the State Department bureaucrats to everything Bush tries to do is legendary.  The most Mr. Bush can do is replace the Secretary of State or the Director of the CIA; he can't reach down and throw the actual problem children out the door.  President Lincoln would probably not have been able to win the Civil War if he had had as little control of the Federal bureaucracy as Mr. Bush has.

The culture of the civil service is so embedded that Congress and the media try to apply its rules even where they don't logically or legally apply.  Remember the ruckus over Bush's firings of Justice Department attorneys?  Supposedly there was political influence in this action.

Of course there was - the attorneys in question were political appointments!  The president has every right to sack them just as he can demand the resignation of cabinet secretaries or the Attorney General himself.  Past presidents have not been shy about using this power - Bill Clinton famously canned every last one of them as soon as he took office, including two who were in the middle of investigating Whitewater.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Scandal?  Hardly - Clinton was a Democrat, that makes it OK.

The Constitution places the authority to enforce the laws in the hands of the president.  It's simple common sense that the attorneys who do the actual investigations and prosecutions have to be directly answerable to the president, including hiring and firing.

It's not possible to investigate and prosecute each and every potential crime all across the fruited plain; there has always been the doctrine of "prosecutorial discretion", where not everything gets chased down because of lack of resources.  The president is elected by the people with a mandate of whatever platform he ran on; what's wrong with him putting his mandate into play?

If you elect a Democratic president, it's natural and normal to expect the Justice Department to spend a lot of time investigating polluters, big businesses, and discrimination.  That's what Democrats promise, and when elected, they have every right to deliver it.  Similarly, it's nonsense to expect a Republican to have the same emphasis; instead they chase down corrupt labor unions, the Mafia, and terrorists, just as they promised during the campaign.

If the American people want a change in approach, they can change president at the next election.  If this is true for prosecutions, why should it not also be true for bureaucracy all up and down the halls of power?  Originally, it was; now, it's not, and our president is emasculated against the power of the unfireable bureaucrat.

Term Limits for Bureaucrats

Which brings us to the second natural limit to bureaucratic power and corruption.  No matter how successful a president or how popular his policies, sooner or later there will be a president from the opposite party.  In the days of the spoils system, that meant an immediate replacement of the entire government staff from top to bottom.  Bureaucrats had what amounted to term limits.

The president who appointed you to a government office could be reasonably expected to be in office for four years.  He might get re-elected to another four.  With a lot of luck, his vice-president might then be elected president and leave many of the same bureaucrats in place, for a total of twelve.  There have been few runs of the same party holding the Oval Office much beyond that.

As term limits are supposed to prevent people from being "professional politicians", the old-fashioned spoils system prevented people from becoming "permanent bureaucrats".  If it's a good idea for politicians to have to return to the real world every now and again, how much more so is this true for the bureaucrats who actually directly affect most of us?

The Permanent Big-Government Lobby

This is where we can clearly see that our government workers are highly skilled.  When you think that a bureaucrat is incompetent, you're almost certainly wrong, because you are looking at the wrong measure.  You're acting like a consumer - this DMV agency makes me wait hours in line, that IRS auditor is aggressively harsh, the TSA makes ridiculous rules that don't help security and inconvenience everybody.

If any of those agencies were private businesses, they'd be out of business long ago.  There's a good reason McDonald's rarely has long lines - if the line is too long, customers go to Burger King instead and the Golden Arches lose sales.  It's the job of McDonald's management to make sure this doesn't happen.  If a store loses business, someone gets fired.  Companies must provide a service that people want, for a reasonable price, or they lose business.  Eventually, a truly rotten company goes bankrupt, shuts down, and vanishes from the earth.

But government agencies don't.  The DMV and IRS will always have just as many customers no matter how lousy or inefficient they get.

Nobody chooses to deal with the EPA, TSA, or any other agency.  The incentives employees of ordinary companies have - the company has to make money or I will get laid off, so the product or service I provide actually matters to me - simply do not apply to government agencies.

What does?  Well, in a normal company an ambitious worker can get ahead in any number of ways, but the simplest is by increasing sales - that is, by bringing in more money to the company.  The genius of capitalism is that it forces ambitious, greedy people to get ahead by providing something that people want.  It harnesses the greed of mankind for the common good.

Government agencies don't increase in size by serving their customers well.  People don't deal with them by choice.  Quite the contrary; nobody deals with the government unless they have to.

And therein lies the key to getting ahead as a bureaucrat: lobby for laws or regulations to force more people to deal with you.  In other words, an ambitious bureaucrat furthers his or her career primarily by growing the size of government.  They're natural liberals!

If you can't create an entire new department, you can always get your people to work slower.  That makes lines longer.  When your victims get mad enough, they'll demand that the politicians do something about it.  You'll give the politicians the usual bureaucratic swindle about not having enough people.

The politicians can't fire you; the only thing they can do is give you more people.  The worse job you do, the more money you get.  Nirvana!

By allowing, nay, requiring, a class of permanent career civil servants, the Civil Service Act inadvertently created a permanent, sizable, powerful, and wealthy force whose primary goal is expanding the power and reach of government.

The more things which are regulated, the more bureaucrats are required to issue, interpret, and enforce the regulations.   The more species that are listed as endangered, the more bureaucrats are needed to protect them.  This means more jobs; it also means more high-ranking, well paid bureaucrats.  It's nice to be able to move up the ranks by taking your boss's job; it's even nicer not to have to, by creating a whole new department to be the boss of, and leave your old boss in charge of his.

In the days of the Spoils System, it wasn't nearly as worthwhile for a talented bureaucrat to push to expand the system.  He might succeed in doing so; but, come the next election, he wouldn't be able to reap the benefits of the new position.  It would fall to some other man, most likely a political appointee from the opposite party.  In other words, to his political enemy - a very good reason not to try to grow the government in the first place!  Today, the incentives are the exact opposite.

A quick look at the size of our federal budget reveals that our nation's bureaucrats are, in fact, very very good at doing what is in their best interest to do: growing the size of government.  Since the Civil Service Act eliminated the two restraints on bureaucracy, the total spending of government has done nothing but grow.

The only time it slips down, slightly, is after the peak of a war; but soon enough it's back on the upward trend.  Reagan was elected to cut the size of government; he failed.  Clinton was elected promising new government programs; he succeeded.  Why might this be?

Unintended Consequences

The Founding Fathers carefully designed our system of governance with checks and balances through and through.  They knew that it was in the nature of man to seek power.  So, they made sure that when the president tried to grab too much power, there'd always be the judges and the Congress to try to grab it back.  With the three branches of government constantly scrambling for the upper hand, the hope was that the people would left alone most of the time.

The concept of an unaccountable bureaucracy never occurred to the Founders.  There were certainly bureaucracies in their day; the very word comes from the French, showing how extensive were the powers of the king's servants.  The British were no different.

But in all cases, the king held complete power over each and every member of the bureaucracy; if a civil servant fouled up too badly, or got too big for his britches, the king could not only reach down and throw him out of office, he might even have his head.  The situation we have today, where no one has control over what government agents do, would have utterly confounded the authors of our Constitution.

With authority, comes responsibility.  With power should come accountability.  Thanks to the Civil Service Act, there is no accountability for the actions of the hundreds of thousands of government workers who collect their salaries thanks to the taxpayers.

Nobody - not the Congress, not the President, not even the courts - can remove bureaucrats from office, no matter what they do, no matter how they abuse the public, as long as it's not a crime.  Even if a bureaucrat loses his job from having committed a crime, he generally keeps his pension.  Is this not truly a tyranny?

For many years, lovers of freedom have moaned, "If only we had a Republican president and Republican Congress!  They'll slash and burn the government down to size!"  Well, we've tried that in the last decade.  How'd it work out?

Once upon a time, elimination of the federal Department of Energy, the National Endowment for the Arts, and sundry other departments and programs was part of the official Republican party national platform.  After 28 years during which we've had 20 years of Republican presidents, this plan is gone without trace.

The targeted departments are still there.  Our most recent Republican president added yet another Cabinet department - the Department of Homeland Security - which is universally ridiculed as utterly incompetent if not corrupt.

Maybe it's time to go back to first principles, and the real root of the problem.  President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk: "The Buck Stops Here."  But it didn't; and it hadn't, really, for half a century.  We'd all be better off if it truly did.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
The problem with bureaucracy is that it is vastly duplicated and non-interoperable. Any micro instance of bureaucracy is about as perfectly efficient as one would ever want it to be. But no time or money is spent on the macro view and so you have hundreds of micro instances all doing their own individual thing with no sharing or communication sideways. Only in the past few years have you seen government offices start to use the same computer processes intra and inter-office that private businesses have been doing for years. Microsoft shares resources between its MSN and Windows divisions. It also cross-markets them - one might call that synergy. The government doesn't, and every micro instance of bureaucracy considers itself (maybe rightly so) to be so efficient and good at its own thing, so it refuses to cooperate with any other micro instance.

But the individual people in the offices have no agenda. (DMV might be an exception to that)
June 4, 2008 7:09 AM
I Googled Scragged so I could bookmark the page.
Glancing down the list on the search page I saw a hit for the MBA Assn., so after doing the bookmark I returned and hit the MBA page expecting to see all kinds of outrage.
I was presently surprised to see they printed the article in it's entirety.
What I don't understand is this: we are not alone in our thinking. There are millions, maybe tens of millions like us. How did we get shut out? How did straight-thinking, reasonably intelligent people get shut out of the process?
My short answer is that you have to be some sort of fanatic with an agenda-or-death philosophy to be heard among the cacophony of special interests clamoring for power and the public dole and we, as rational humans, have more of the "get a life" way of doing things and get so disgusted by the whole sordid business that we just walk away in despair.
June 15, 2008 3:57 AM
Oho, looks like someone in the MSM has figured this out... now that it's Obama they want to replace all the bureaucrats with even-more-leftist ones.
December 2, 2008 3:33 PM
I use to work for the federal bureaucracy and now I work for a state bureaucracy. I am not sure who I work for or who works for me. Things happen everyday and things get done, somehow it works but I don't know how.
October 7, 2009 3:24 PM

Term limit is 1 way to curb some of the problems

April 2, 2015 1:21 PM

Term limits mean that the politicians would have very little knowledge of the issues and would be at the mercy of the bureaucracy.

They pretty much are anyway.

April 2, 2015 8:41 PM

If Congress had been willing to eliminate the Department of Energy, they could simply have passed a law doing so, or a budget bill which eliminated its budget. They didn't, because Republicans weren't willing to do so.

August 9, 2020 1:39 AM
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