Govt very bad at doing things like O-care

h/t Jonah Goldber in The G-file, on the “moral equivalent of war” argument oft used to advance progressive causes:

Whenever I make the argument that government is very bad at doing things like Obamacare, the liberal response is invariably to offer counter-examples. “The military is awesome! Are you saying SEAL Team 6 is bad at what it does?” or “We sent a man to the moon!” Other counter-examples are pretty rare, but there are some. The NIH does some great things. The Coast Guard, the Peace Corps, etc.

What liberals never appreciate is that in all of these counter-examples there’s something else going on. The institutional cultures that won World War II or put a man on the moon or that discover some new protein are not strictly speaking government cultures. While none of them are immune from bureaucratic stupidity and inefficiency, ultimately higher motivations win out.

How the Marines’ esprit de corps differs from the post office’s esprit de corps should be pretty obvious. But even in the other examples, the cultural core of excellent government institutions is driven by something greater than a mere paycheck and significantly different from simple “public service.” The NASA that sent men to the moon was imbued with a culture not just of excellence and patriotism but the kind of awe and wonder that cannot be replicated by the Department of Health and Human Services. Moreover, for scientists passionate about space and the race to get there, there was simply no place else to be. That meant the very best people were attracted to NASA. Even if, for some strange reason, you’re passionate about writing billions of lines of code for a website and managing health-insurance data, there are still better things to do with your time than work on Obamacare.

I want to be fair to government workers. Many individuals who work for government are dedicated to doing excellent work for the public good. But I’m talking about culture here. President Obama talks as if, absent a war or other national crisis, the entire government can still be imbued with the spirit of sacrifice and excellence that won World War II or put a man on the moon. And that’s just crazy talk.

Obama, the permanent campaigner, believes that governing should be more like campaigning. Everyone unified towards a single — Obamacentric — purpose. Everyone loyal to his needs. Everyone in agreement with his agenda. In 2008, when asked what management experience he had, he said that running his campaign proved he was ready for the presidency. That should have been the moment when we all heard the record-scratch sound effect and said “What’s that now!?” Even if Obama deserved all of the credit for his campaign’s successes, campaigning and governing are fundamentally different things. Campaign culture allows for people to be fired. It also rewards excellence, which is why some very young people rise very quickly in the campaign world, while it’s far more rare in civil service. Campaigns have a deadline-driven, crisis-junky energy and sense of team loyalty that is at least somewhat analogous to a war or some other crisis. That’s why the Obama campaign website was great. It’s also why the Obamacare website’s error page has an error page.

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2 Responses to Govt very bad at doing things like O-care

  1. Nice writing. This whole past five years has been one big record scratch sound!

  2. Paul Marks says:

    A good post. But the bureaucratic nature of the government military (and civilian NASA) should be stressed more. The budget is a total mess (there seems to be no connection between money in and what comes out), and a lot of brave men and women have died due to the vast bureaucracy.

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