Kevin D. Williamson wonders why our governmental bureaucracy seems, in his experience, less competent than elsewhere in the West. “Maybe there is something of the old royalist or Napoleonic attitude that survives in Europe, which approaches the matter of bureaucracy with a certain dignity.”
If we are to have a political exchange that amounts to something more than an imaginary exchange between two polar positions held by almost no one in the 21st century United States (Bismarckian étatism vs. Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, or Thomas Hobbes vs. Ayn Rand) then we have to pay some attention not only to the size and the scope of the state’s agencies but also to whether they are any good at what we ask them to do. Moralistic egalitarian arguments for a uniform system of public education will never be persuasive to people who know about Atlanta, or to people who are familiar with the stark differences in school quality that can be seen by walking a mile, or to people who know about the “rubber rooms” of New York. Our progressive friends who demand a Scandinavian scope of government have very little to say about achieving a Scandinavian standard of government, or even a Canadian one, as though competence could simply be assumed in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. They talk about the postwar years as though the only thing that has changed since the Eisenhower administration is the top marginal income-tax rate.
Americans do not much trust their government, for good reason. And this has immediate, important real-world consequences. For example: It can be difficult to distinguish between hysteria about Islam and well-founded concern about Muslim immigration into the United States, but who seriously thinks that our public institutions are up to the job of properly investigating tens of thousands (or more) refugees, asylum-seekers, and ordinary immigrants every year? If Donald Trump’s temporary order seems to you unreasonable, ask yourself what the next-best option is and how much confidence we should have in it. The U.S. government has been flubbing the problem of radicals crossing our borders since Lee Harvey Oswald was simmering in Minsk. How many terrorists and school shooters were already on the authorities’ radar, and had been for years, before they committed spectacular atrocities? A half-dozen examples come to mind.
That is not confidence-inspiring, and Americans do not lack faith in their public institutions because they listen to too much talk radio or read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. They lack confidence in their public institutions because they go to the driver’s-license office from time to time, because they see disability fraud and Medicaid fraud all around them, because they know crooked cops and incompetent teachers, because their memories may be short but are not so short that they have forgotten the Clintons exist.
Generally speaking, I walk into a government office a Bill Buckley conservative and walk out ready to join a militia in Idaho. My temperament, fortunately for the republic, is not everyone’s. But we should not underestimate how effective competence is as an antidote to political radicalism and angry populism of either the left-wing or right-wing variety. No one ever will be elected president for asking why it takes two hours for an American to get back into his own country through JFK but six minutes to pass through Barajas in Madrid, or why a law-abiding regular guy has to provide a birth certificate, Social Security card, and additional photo ID to go about his ordinary business as a citizen while we cannot enforce the law against illegal aliens.