Is government really the problem?

Take it from this die-hard Reagan conservative: he was not quite entirely correct when he said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."  True, government is not the solution, but then the question becomes, why not?  What is it about government that makes it uniquely unsuited to solve our national problems?

The fact is that it is not government itself that is the problem; it is the excessive size of government that results in its dysfunction.  This problem of scale is not unique to government.  Much the same applies to any overly large organization, whether in the public sector or the private.

My own experience provides an example.  In 1993, I worked for a subcontractor to IBM.  At the time, IBM was so massive that it was said that its contingent of security guards was larger than some foreign armies.  As with big government, Big Blue had a large bureaucracy, and it was every bit as wasteful and counterproductive as most major departments in Washington, D.C.

A conversation with a salesman provided a sterling illustration of why IBM was facing existential threats from its competitors.  The salesman had responded to an invitation from a client who wished to purchase a computer system, including many desktop workstations.  It was soliciting bids.  IBM, having the most gravitas at the time, was first in line.  After the sales pitch, the client was suitably impressed.  He had just one additional request.  He desired that his computers come in brighter colors than the standard dull beige that IBM produced.

The salesman was then forced into the uncomfortable position of having to explain that IBM had a policy concerning colors.  Beige was the professional standard.  (Function, not fashion design, gave the company its stellar reputation.  Why, desktop computers are not toys, mind you.)

The client was disappointed and asked if an exception could be made.  The salesman offered hope that perhaps one could be made, but first the request would have to go through the approval process.  At least five layers of middle management would have to carefully consider all the many ramifications. 

The salesman well knew that those middle managers all had turf to protect.  Making decisions in that environment was perilous to one's career.  The safest thing to do would be to delay and obfuscate, while hoping that someone farther up in the chain of command would shoulder the risky burden of taking action.

The salesman stated that he could have a decision in a few weeks, but that the answer would likely be "no."

The client said he respected IBM's professionalism and would consider the matter.  He then summoned the next waiting salesman from another computer company.

As the IBM salesman departed, he heard the competitor's salesman say to the client, sir, I can have all the computers you need, in place, Monday morning, in any colors you like.

"At that point," the IBM salesman told me, "I knew I had lost the sale."  And he had.

During my time at IBM, I heard many anecdotes such as this one, which is why that same year, a massive downsizing at IBM cost 60,000 people their jobs.

A new CEO eliminated most of the middle managers, and his policy was that the lowest-level managers would have direct access to him any time they spotted a problem or suggested an improvement.

The difference between large corporations and the government is, of course, that corporations have incentives to solve problems, while government has incentives to increase its size and power, even when that makes the problems worse – which is what so often happens.

The solution to big government (the excessive size of which is indeed the problem) is to downsize it.  When the Constitution was first implemented, there was one representative in Congress for every 62,000 constituents.  Today, according to my calculator, there is one representative for every 800,000 of us.  That concentration of such vast power in so few hands (there are only 450 representatives) is at the core of the problems (plural) of big government – problems that include not only waste and ineffectiveness, but also corruption.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we need not fewer representatives, but more of them – far more.  They need not all convene in Washington.  Indeed, representation should be so drastically decentralized that any small group of concerned citizens should have easy and convenient access to their congressman.

The details would have to be hammered out, but the principle should be aggressively pursued. 

Article V, convention of the states, anyone?

Take it from this die-hard Reagan conservative: he was not quite entirely correct when he said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."  True, government is not the solution, but then the question becomes, why not?  What is it about government that makes it uniquely unsuited to solve our national problems?

The fact is that it is not government itself that is the problem; it is the excessive size of government that results in its dysfunction.  This problem of scale is not unique to government.  Much the same applies to any overly large organization, whether in the public sector or the private.

My own experience provides an example.  In 1993, I worked for a subcontractor to IBM.  At the time, IBM was so massive that it was said that its contingent of security guards was larger than some foreign armies.  As with big government, Big Blue had a large bureaucracy, and it was every bit as wasteful and counterproductive as most major departments in Washington, D.C.

A conversation with a salesman provided a sterling illustration of why IBM was facing existential threats from its competitors.  The salesman had responded to an invitation from a client who wished to purchase a computer system, including many desktop workstations.  It was soliciting bids.  IBM, having the most gravitas at the time, was first in line.  After the sales pitch, the client was suitably impressed.  He had just one additional request.  He desired that his computers come in brighter colors than the standard dull beige that IBM produced.

The salesman was then forced into the uncomfortable position of having to explain that IBM had a policy concerning colors.  Beige was the professional standard.  (Function, not fashion design, gave the company its stellar reputation.  Why, desktop computers are not toys, mind you.)

The client was disappointed and asked if an exception could be made.  The salesman offered hope that perhaps one could be made, but first the request would have to go through the approval process.  At least five layers of middle management would have to carefully consider all the many ramifications. 

The salesman well knew that those middle managers all had turf to protect.  Making decisions in that environment was perilous to one's career.  The safest thing to do would be to delay and obfuscate, while hoping that someone farther up in the chain of command would shoulder the risky burden of taking action.

The salesman stated that he could have a decision in a few weeks, but that the answer would likely be "no."

The client said he respected IBM's professionalism and would consider the matter.  He then summoned the next waiting salesman from another computer company.

As the IBM salesman departed, he heard the competitor's salesman say to the client, sir, I can have all the computers you need, in place, Monday morning, in any colors you like.

"At that point," the IBM salesman told me, "I knew I had lost the sale."  And he had.

During my time at IBM, I heard many anecdotes such as this one, which is why that same year, a massive downsizing at IBM cost 60,000 people their jobs.

A new CEO eliminated most of the middle managers, and his policy was that the lowest-level managers would have direct access to him any time they spotted a problem or suggested an improvement.

The difference between large corporations and the government is, of course, that corporations have incentives to solve problems, while government has incentives to increase its size and power, even when that makes the problems worse – which is what so often happens.

The solution to big government (the excessive size of which is indeed the problem) is to downsize it.  When the Constitution was first implemented, there was one representative in Congress for every 62,000 constituents.  Today, according to my calculator, there is one representative for every 800,000 of us.  That concentration of such vast power in so few hands (there are only 450 representatives) is at the core of the problems (plural) of big government – problems that include not only waste and ineffectiveness, but also corruption.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we need not fewer representatives, but more of them – far more.  They need not all convene in Washington.  Indeed, representation should be so drastically decentralized that any small group of concerned citizens should have easy and convenient access to their congressman.

The details would have to be hammered out, but the principle should be aggressively pursued. 

Article V, convention of the states, anyone?