Government as Entropy

On May 15th, 1862, the thirty-seventh Congress passed into law the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture. Its purpose, as the law explained, was "to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants."

How charming; how quaint. Over one hundred and fifty years later, the USDA is still going strong; from its humble beginnings; it now commands hundreds of billions of dollars in Federal funds and more than 100,000 personnel. What is it doing with all that manpower, and all that cash? Is it spreading "useful information" about agriculture? Is it passing out "new and valuable seeds and plants?" Are we getting the most bang for our agricultural buck?

Er, not quite, or rather not merely. As came to light this week, the USDA has distributed a flyer that assures Mexican immigrants that they can acquire food stamp benefits for their children without proper documentation -- that is to say, illegal immigrants may still be eligible for an EBT card. The news is hardly surprising; what's remarkable is that the USDA is actively advertising it.

But that's what happens to bureaucracy over time. The USDA was founded on a relatively simple set of principles: promote American agriculture. That was it; that was pretty much its whole raison d'être. In one hundred and fifty years it apparently learned a few new tricks, the least of which is teaching people how to live off the public dole. The USDA now boasts an Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, an Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and an Economic Research Service, to name a few of its bureaucratic functions; it manages offices of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Tribal Relations, Communications, Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the Executive Secretariat, and many others; it hath pronounced on the "Harmonized Tariff Schedule" and "International Phyosanitary Standards" and lots of other fascinating topics.

How much of this is "useful information?" about agriculture? How much of it is regulatory folderol?

The whole sorry history of Federal departments betrays a similar mentality: once created, forever growing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a humble beginning: it traces its origins to the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, which permitted the Secretary of the Interior "to cooperate with the States, through their respective State fish and game departments, in wildlife-restoration projects." Among the functions of the modern F&WS one finds, solely in its General Operations budget, an Office of Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Management, a DOI Working Capital Fund, Miscellaneous Reimbursable Support Agreements, Administrative User-Pay Cost Share, a Youth in the Great Outdoors program, and appropriations for things such as Canada Travelers Insurance, Diversity Day, Invest in People Initiatives, a Warehouse Manager, a Civil Rights Intern, Supplies/Fedstrip/Materials/Paper, Encryption (DAR) License, an Ethics Manager, Exit Interview System Support... and so forth, on and on and on, all supported by taxpayer dollars. Is any of this to do with good government? Is any of this compatible with representative democracy?

Take, too, the Department of Housing and Urban Development: founded during the heady days of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, it was created to ensure "sound development of the Nation's communities and metropolitan areas in which the vast majority of its people live and work." That seems a daunting yet generally straightforward task; how complicated could it be? Today, the department boasts a sprawling multitude of offices: Public and Indian Housing, Labor Relations, Small/Disadvantaged Business Utilization, Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, Congressional/Intergovernmental Relations, an Ethics and Appeals Division of the Office of General Counsel, an Office of Risk Management and Regulatory Affairs (itself comprised of the Office of Risk Management, the Office of Evaluation, and the Office of Manufactured Housing), a Rental Housing Integrity Improvement Project... and the list continues, and will almost certainly continue to grow.

Why belabor the point? These multi-tiered government mammoths aren't going anywhere. But it is still indicative of a painful reality: creating a government agency is like ringing a dinner bell. People are going to come from all over to try and get a piece of the action; and as this happens, the agencies will grow, the offices will become more numerous, and the positions and occupations will become more uncountable and unaccountable.

And it's hard to have hope. As we witnessed during the so-called "austerity" debacle, any attempt to cut even fifty cents of government outlays results in howls of cruelty and threats of retribution. If one attempts to remove even one self-evidently superfluous position -- if one tries to cut funding to one Vice Executioner for Environmental Equity Surveys, a position that has to exist somewhere -- then the result is a frenetic backlash and very likely a subsequent rise in government spending. That is Washington, day in and day out: always growing, never shrinking, always adding one more functionary, one more regulator and one more program at the direct expense of the taxpayers. The USDA's latest food stamp fracas is simply more of the same.

Many years ago, this columnist's kindergarten class was taken to a local pizza joint as a field trip, and we were allowed to make our own pizza. Naturally, we piled on as many ingredients as we could get our little hands on-anchovies, peppers, spinach, you name it. When the pizza came out, it was a pastiche of all the things that little kids do not like to eat. We wouldn't touch a slice of it; it was just too gross.

So goes the Federal government: piling on the unpalatable, doing it without thinking, and without regards to the consequences. Yet there is a difference: we kindergartners were able to refuse our misbegotten pizza creations. In contrast, all of us now have to accept Washington's unfortunate smorgasbord, whether we like it or not. If that metaphor seems untenable, don't worry; there is almost certainly an Office of Allegorical Arbitration somewhere in D.C., so you can appeal directly to them.

Daniel Payne is a freelance writing living and working in Richmond, Virginia. He blogs at


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