Underfunded killer bureaucracies

Daniel Henninger writes in today’s WSJ that “From Ebola to the Secret Service, ‘killer bureaucracies’ have become a clear and present danger.”

The Secret Service is so disorganized it can’t protect, of all things, the White House. Veterans died waiting for admission to VA hospitals. The CDC lost track of anthrax, smallpox and H5N1 bird-flu samples. At the State Department, no one seems to quite know why a U.S. ambassador died in Benghazi. The 9/11 Commission explained in detail how the attackers evaded the bureaucracies. Add to this list the Internal Revenue Service, an agency of extraordinary power that has forfeited the public’s trust.

The “theoretical defense” of failures like these is that bureaucracies “perform large, needed tasks in a predictable way” and Liberalism’s perpetual answer for the failures is that the agencies need more money, i.e., “underfunding raises the risk of bad outcomes.”

But what if this argument is not only wrong but is now dangerous? What if we have reached a point past which using money to make already large bureaucracies bigger makes the likelihood of catastrophic events worse?

Forget FDR and the glory days of the 1930s. Federal bureaucracies in the 21st century are breaking apart amid a perfect storm of size, complexity and technology. The debris is endangering all of us…

People who study how complex systems work or fail have long known that introducing new or additional rules often increases the odds that the people operating the systems will make more mistakes…

The political class is clueless, or doesn’t care. With “reform” legislation such as Dodd-Frank, ObamaCare, Sarbanes-Oxley and the no-doubt imminent Ebola outlays, the compulsive fix-it men of politics make matters worse. These complex requirements are time bombs primed for more catastrophe – another financial crisis, another deadly VA scandal. They increase the confusions in an intrinsically error-prone bureaucratic system.

The answer isn’t impossibly wise and incorruptible angels using a bigger computer to centralize more power.

My guess is that the answer to this plague of bureaucratic damage runs in the opposite direction, toward scaled-down, distributed public responsibilities. Less power but better, safer performance.

Michael Barone makes very similar points in his column today:

…an increasing perception that big government just doesn’t work very well — even at things nearly everyone agrees government should do, such as providing healthcare for veterans or protecting the president and his family.

The deterioration in government’s competence is not just a recent or American phenomenon. That’s a point made in three recent books by the Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Yale law professor Peter Schuck, and New York lawyer Philip Howard. It’s also a major topic in Francis Fukuyama’s recently released Political Order and Political Decay.

But it is a process that has gained speed under a president who doesn’t seem much interested in the mechanics of government and whose confidence that more spending will produce better results keeps being undermined by events.

Democrats this year are running not just against the trend that presidencies usually (though not always) grow stale in their sixth year. They are in the uncomfortable position of defending policies which work against the grain of change in an Information Age, and for putting more trust in a government that isn’t competently performing basic tasks.

That’s an uphill climb as the world spins out of control, government keeps floundering, and the president seems unable to master events.

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