Rules versus Reason, Rules versus Power

Well-meaning bureaucrats cause expensive gridlock.

Stephen Goldsmith, deputy mayor of New York City, recently pointed out a major problem of governance which has until recently been buried by our financial troubles.  He wrote:

Across the country, the interests of organized labor, elected officials and taxpayers are colliding over wages, work rules and the astronomical costs of retiree pensions and health care. As important as these specific issues are to resolve, there is another, more fundamental problem causing so many Americans to lose faith in their government: It is not government unions per se but progressive government itself - long celebrated in Wisconsin, New York and elsewhere - that no longer produces progressive results.

Mr. Goldsmith pointed out that before the Civil Service Acts were passed in 1883, politicians were able to hire and fire all government employees pretty much as they pleased.  This had an advantage - a governor or a mayor or a president could fire the entire bureaucracy when he took office and hire people whom he could be sure would carry out the policies he'd promised when he campaigned.  Abraham Lincoln couldn't have won the Civil War if he'd been unable to fire government bureaucrats who didn't agree with him - because when he was elected, most of them didn't.

The patronage system had disadvantages.  Being able to appoint government employees whom they could count on to funnel tax money to their friends generated great wealth for the Democratic politicians who controlled the Tammany machine in New York City.  In theory, the Civil Service Act replaced patronage and connections with examinations which would pick the best-qualified person for each job.  The progressive politicians who championed this system believed they'd eliminate corruption and get more competent government employees to better serve the taxpayers.

Good Intentions and the Road to Hell

Contrary to the desires of its promoters, the Civil Service Act didn't eliminate political patronage at all; it only made it a bit more complex.  President Kennedy famously appointed his brother-in-law to be the first head of the Peace Corps.  So many relatives of politicians have found government jobs that it hardly makes significant headlines any more.

The act didn't eliminate political payoffs either; the politicians simply found another, legal, way to accomplish the same goal.  Instead of siphoning off government funds directly, politicians use the power of their positions to encourage campaign contributions.  The New York Times reports:

An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton's foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman's mall project.

Despite fewer opportunities for patronage, politicians still use their connections to become wealthy; they just have to wait until they're out of office.  The Clintons left the White House deeply in debt due to Slick Willie's legal troubles; today they are multi-millionaires.

Government rules become more and more complicated over time.  Mr Goldsmith reports that the resulting morass of regulations makes it almost impossible to manage the city:

New York City has more than 300,000 employees who work under more than 100 collective-bargaining agreements, along with layers of bureaucratic state civil-service laws. State law mandates that over 1,500 job titles must be filled through competitive written exams, specifically ignoring an employee's actual performance or qualifications. We are even required to administer a civil-service test for the head of our Police Department's counterterrorism unit! (We found a way around it.)  [emphasis added]

Even worse, most government employees have protection against being fired based on the Civil Service Act and also they're protected by union contracts:

Seniority rules require that layoffs are based on date of hire, not merit. These rules also prevent any significant rewards for outstanding performance and make dismissing bad apples in the Big Apple all but impossible. Even asking employees for their ideas can be against the rules.

The result of the progressive reforms was a bloated, inefficient work force whose members can't realistically be fired for any degree of incompetence.  When a brand-new job such as the head of the counterterrorism unit has to be created in a hurry, it takes world-class bureaucratic ju-jitsu to get around the rules requiring a meaningless "competitive examination."

The Nature of Man

The old-time progressives may have had the best of intentions, but they forgot that men and women tend to be self-centered by nature.  Government workers don't want to work any harder than they absolutely must, union management wants to run the union for their benefit not that of the members, politicians look out for themselves instead of the public, and so on.

The progressives made the same mistake that the legalists made in the days of Confucius around 100 BC - they thought that if they could enact perfect laws, society would be perfect.  They forgot that even perfect laws are interpreted and enforced by imperfect men.  Civil service rules have been commandeered by workers who'd rather benefit themselves than benefit society.

As governments and voters encountered more and more problems, they thought that all problems could be solved by writing more and more rules, which have succeeded merely in making things worse.

When school officials observed that more black students than white students were being detained after school or suspended, they decided that the teachers were racially prejudiced against the black students.

The solution was to enact "zero-tolerance" rules which said, in effect, that no violations of rules were permitted and students would be disciplined for any infraction.  This was supposed to wring prejudice out of the school system just as the civil service rules were supposed to wring patronage out of the political system.

"Zero-tolerance" resulted in such outrages as a 6 year being suspended for bringing a Cub Scout eating utensil to show and tell; he'd violated the "no weapons" rule since the gadget included a rudimentary knife.  Another 3rd grader was suspended for giving a friend a cough drop - she was pushing drugs.

Obamacare is perhaps the greatest demonstration of an utterly futile belief in the power of rules to solve all problems.  The government appointed panel after panel of "wise men and women" who were supposed to find the most economical and effective treatments for medical conditions.  The Wall Street Journal reports that these panels are planning to stop paying for the commonly-accepted treatments for diabetes:

The subsidize-mandate-overregulate insurance model is imploding in Massachusetts. Then there's Washington state, where a government board may decide that modern medicine is too expensive for kids with diabetes.

Basing everything on rules doesn't work because people manipulate the rules to their benefit.  Confucius knew that - he based his theory of governance on having wise rulers who set examples of virtue to everyone below them.  Progressives didn't believe in virtue or reason and substituted rules instead.

As rules, regulations, and unionization have boosted government costs beyond the ability of society to pay, we're faced with a choice - cut the cost of government, which means cutting government workers' pay and perks, or watch our society collapse.  Unpleasant, yes, but the voters are catching on and are demanding spending cuts.

If government is too expensive for the society to pay its costs, those costs won't be paid.  Government will be cut, either the hard way through changing the laws or the very hard way through societal collapse.  We'd prefer the hard way to the very hard way, but it's not clear that enough of our elected officials share that belief.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
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