by Barry Edelson


Be Careful What You Wish For


Both Liberals and Conservative Ask too Much of Government


Among the more astonishing turns in the long career of Christopher Hitchens was his support for the American invasion of Iraq and his admiration for Paul Wolfowitz, one of the war's prime architects and bête noir of the American left during the Bush years. In his memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens offers an ardent defense of these views, arguing that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's surpassingly brutal regime was perfectly consistent with his lifetime of outspoken opposition to dictatorship in all its forms. Hitchens saw in Wolfowitz a democratic idealist and a natural ally in this cause, someone who first made his name in government in the mid-1980s when, as an assistant secretary of state, he convinced Ronald Reagan to support Corazon Aquino's nonviolent insurgency against the Philippine despot Ferdinand Marcos, contrary to the advice of many more senior administration officials. It should not be as surprising as it seems, as the "neo" in neoconservative means that Wolfowitz and his fellow converts used to be something else — namely, liberals — whose visions of a more democratic world were now manifest within a different political context but survived their conversion more or less intact.

Where Hitchens went wrong, by his own admission, was in assuming that the Pentagon and State Department were filled with professionals who knew what they were doing. It never even occurred to him that they had not fully thought through the many ramifications of the Iraq invasion before sending troops into battle. He didn't think to ask whether the American government was sending in enough soldiers and marines to secure both the borders and the cities, or whether there was a workable plan to deal with thousands of Saddam's foot soldiers and numerous Ba'athist officials who would suddenly find themselves unemployed and on the wrong end of Iraqi history. The ensuing calamity made victims of the civilian population all over again, an appalling betrayal of the neoconservative ideals that propelled the country into war in the first place.

As we stand on the eve of yet another American election which is being fought largely on the question of the proper role of government, there has been precious little discussion about what the government can and cannot actually accomplish. Both the left and the right cling to their cherished mythologies, with no acknowledgement on either side of their own failures or the others' successes. Liberals are quick to point to George W. Bush's two messy, inconclusive wars, the shameful mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, the wholesale deregulation of the financial sector and other blunders as evidence of why a party that professes to hate the government cannot be trusted to run it. At the same time, the left continues to worship at the altar of the the New Deal and to believe that FDR's policies ended the Great Depression (even though it was the industrial engine of World War II that pushed us, incidentally, back to prosperity) and that the Great Society ended poverty and racism (even though many more black children are still proportionately poor and more poorly educated than white children). Conservatives insist that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and numerous other progressive programs have effectively destroyed the country's entrepreneurial spirit, even though the United States remains the largest and most innovative economy in the world, and even though these programs have had demonstrably positive effects on the lives of many people. Similarly, the much-derided Obama stimulus plan, by preventing the Great Recession from becoming much worse than it might otherwise have been, and keeping a lot of people working who would otherwise be unemployed, was neither the panacea promised by Democrats nor the unmitigated disaster described by Republicans.

Barack Obama's progressives, in their quixotic quest for reform in health care, industry and the financial sector, and the neoconservatives, in their zealous pursuit of democracy around the world and libertarian economics at home, share one very important trait. They both believe — falsely — that the federal government is nimble enough to respond to the policy visions of its political masters. Americans who believe strongly in health care reform or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have good reason to be deeply skeptical of the government's ability to do the job properly. A vast bureaucracy that is defined by thousands of competing rules and ruled by a thousand competing interests simply cannot move quickly or definitively enough in any particular direction to make the kind of difference that presidents and their supporters wish it to make. This is not because government departments are populated by hordes of "faceless bureaucrats" who just don't care. It is because this is the way very large governments operate. Everyone who works for the government, however well-intentioned, is hemmed in by thickets of regulation that make it virtually impossible to make meaningful progress within the strict dictates of an electoral timeframe, which also make it more difficult for the government to get seriously out of hand.

If you disagree, apply for a federal grant. You are guaranteed to find the process so stultifying and mind-numbingly complex, the paperwork so onerous and the number of interconnected steps so stupefyingly inexplicable, that you will quickly give up unless you have some compelling reason to see it through. It's not that you can't get the grant if you try; it's just not the low-hanging fruit that politicians would have us believe. Now imagine the despair of people whose lives depend on the government, because they live in a disaster zone or can't find a job or are at risk of losing their homes. Despite any number of attempts to "reinvent" government, to make it simpler and more effective, it remains hopelessly labyrinthine in its structure and byzantine in its methods.

Why is it like this? The cynical view is that the purpose of bureaucracy is to ensure that no individual can ever be held accountable. Ironically, all of those forms we are required to fill out and documentation we are required to provide are intended to make the government more accountable, not less. In order to prevent widespread fraud, government departments go to great lengths to construct elaborate systems of verification. How is the government supposed to know that you are who you say you are, that the information on your forms is accurate and current, or that you are legitimately entitled to whatever service or funds you are applying for? There are simply too many of us for the government to be able to take our word for it. These are all legitimate concerns, but in the process of trying to protect the taxpayers' dollars, and to protect themselves and their agencies from charges of sloppiness or profligacy, government officials end up creating as many obstacles as opportunities. No government can effectively serve millions of different people with widely differing needs without trying to shoehorn everyone into one-size-fits-all solutions. The larger and more diverse the nation, the more absurd the result.

The long and the short of it is that even when the Administration and the Congress mean well, even when government departments are run well and sincerely try to serve the people as they are intended to do, they have very limited means of doing so. This is not to say that some agencies don't perform well the tasks that they have been assigned. In one of our most common expressions of frustration, "We could put a man on the Moon…", is a tacit expectation that government can and should work better. We did in fact put a dozen men on the Moon, but at the cost of how much money, how many lives, how many other priorities overlooked? Even a great triumph like the conclusive victory in WWII was achieved not because of the government's capability but because the fear of losing to such a despicable enemy, the skill of military commanders and the devotion of troops on the ground, were sufficient to overwhelm ordinary government mismanagement. Every veteran of that war can testify to the colossal waste and boneheaded decision-making that needlessly cost lives and threatened to derail the entire enterprise at every turn. And that was a situation in which almost every American understood the challenge and was willing to sacrifice for it. How often have we ever been as united in a cause as we were then?

In some respects, democracy is preserved, not undermined, by bureaucracy. Consider the filibuster. The majority in power in the Senate always rails against the selfish maneuvering of the minority, but the founders knew what they were doing. They disdained the British parliamentary system, in which a mere majority can dictate to the entire nation. Instead, they devised a system in which majorities are checked in every possible way: by the other branches of government, by each house against the other, by the ever-looming specter of regular elections, and by a free press that exposes its errors and depredations. The deliberately obstructive rules of the Senate, maddening as they can be, are in perfect parallel with the bureaucratic immensity that slows the government to a crawl. Only dictatorships can achieve the agility and swiftness that candidates habitually promise before Election Day. Voters who claim to love liberty should think twice before pulling the lever for anyone who promises revolutionary change to this glacial landscape. A lumbering, unresponsive government is a powerful check against tyranny. A nimbler government would be better at a great many things, including many that no American government should ever be allowed to do. The system is working more or less as intended. The main problem is our unrealistic expectations, which are badly out of alignment with the carefully crafted structure of the Constitution.

October 31, 2010


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