You Can’t Make the Government Perfect, But You Can Make It Better
It's institutions of government - not its size - that matter when it comes to how good a job the government does.
Back in my libertarian days, whenever somebody complained about government corruption or abuse of power, my stock libertarian response was always the same: “Well if we made government smaller, we wouldn’t have that problem!”
This was an apprehension that was cured by, you know, reading a few history books. Back in the 19th century, federal and state governments were far more corrupt than they are today–even though they did less! And reducing that corruption wasn’t a matter of embracing libertarian ideals. It was, instead, the embrace of the deliciously unsexy Civil Service Reform movement. And in terms of the Federal Government, much of that reduction of corruption is owed to one of our greatest Presidents – Chester A. Arthur. (A President so good even Mark Twain liked him.)
Chester A. Arthur’s story is actually quite remarkable. He was a one-time member of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, a group of politicians who were pretty much devoted to patronage and the spoils system when it came to divvying up power in the Federal Government. He was the one-time Port Collector of New York City, which was pretty much corruption central. But as President, he became a champion of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which marked the beginning of the end of the spoils system and patronage.
By ending spoils, creating written examinations for civil service, and other reforms, Arthur and Congress helped create a federal bureaucracy that was more efficient, more professional, and less prone to corruption. I recall studying the Federal bureaucracy as a student and one thing that does leap out is the relative paucity of corruption. Governments from other countries around the world have sent delegations to the United States to learn our institutional controls.
To be sure – there is corruption in the federal ranks. But such incidents tend to be rare, and the laws are enforced. To my knowledge, the only real breakdown of the system in recent years has been the Bush Adminstration’s terrible, terrible appointments to the Minerals Management Service, which led to jawdropping corruption so bad that the only reasonable solution was to do what the Obama Administration did — close the agency down, and replace its mission with two different agencies that are better policed.
Here’s the bottom line on this: no government is going to be perfect. At least, as long as they’re run by humans and not superintelligent computers. So there will always be abuses of power. There will always be corruption. The best we can do is to minimize that corruption by creating insitutions that make corruption less likely, and coming down with the hammer on those politicians and bureaucrats who break the law. Sometimes this will mean major changes. More often, it means minor tweaks to regulations and oversight.
I’ve cited this Jason Kuznicki essay before, but he makes a great point worth repeating:
Many of the freedoms that you value the most are easily and inexpensively stomped upon—stuff like public worship, the free press, or the right to independent political association. Arbitrary government costs less than the rule of law, if only because codifying the law and establishing the quality-control mechanisms inherent in doing the job properly can be expensive. Other things being equal, secret laws are cheaper than published ones, and the cheapest laws of all are the ones that the guard dogs make up right there on the spot.
Institutional reform, transparency, and the rule of law may not be sexy. But that’s how you fix corruption. It’s not the size of government that creates abuses of power. It’s impunity. And fixing that requires institutional reform, not ideological platitudes.