Unchecked government departmentalization is to the rule of a few (an oligarchy) what a juggernaut is to a flea. Once the contraption is set in motion it crushes the Iron Law of Oligarchy and everything else in its path. The ensuing chaos also squashes particracy (the rule of one of more political parties).
This, I submit, is where the elective and administrative systems of American government are at present. I think this claim can be validated simply by following the daily news from official Washington or by studying the 51 nation U.S.-led NATO/ ISAF prosecution of the Afghan War, which according to my back of the envelope calculations deployed at its height 37,182 departments, all fought to a draw by 4 chain-smoking Pakistani generals. (I think one downside to warfare by departmentalization is that it creates such chaos the war can be over for years before anyone notices.)
For more background on the Iron Law of Departmentalization, how the federal government has managed to continue functioning after a fashion in the midst of chaos and how the Devil got involved in all this, see the first and second posts in this series.
In this writing I examine how various approaches at improving government stack up against the Iron Law of Departmentalization.
By the time Hitler's tanks rolled into Poland the great democracy project that Robert Michels, Max Weber and so many other European political thinkers had dedicated their lives to working on was in ruins. Surveying the devastation from the mountain fastness of Switzerland, a Swiss historian named Adolf Gasser penned his magnum opus, Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas ("Communal Freedom as the Salvation of Europe"), published in the first edition in 1943.
In the book Gasser identified strong centralized government coupled with very weak municipalities as the great enemy of democratic government. He argued that "countries with democratic constitutions can only be viable if they have federalist structures and the municipalities have extensive, legally guaranteed autonomy," to quote Swiss editor Robert Nef's analysis in his 2003 paper, In Praise of Non-Centralism.
(See Section 9, "Federalism and Municipal Autonomy" pp. 71-75 for Nef's discussion of Adolf Gasser's work. I think Nef's paper also does a good job of summarizing the concepts of non-centralism, including federalism, and the strongest arguments for this approach to democratic governance. The English version of Nef's paper is in PDF format and is free.)
Gasser's ideas have relevance today; they were summarized in Wikipedia's article on representative democracy and mentioned in its article on libertarian municipalism. However, Gasser was analyzing the effects of centralized government on the patchwork of countries on the European continent, all of which combined could fit into the continental United States 2-1/2 times. So while municipal autonomy can ward off the worst effects of departmentalization gone berserk in a small country, what happens when a municipality is as large as one or more European countries? Some idea of what happened is found in this passage from Wikipedia's article on local U.S. government:
It is common for residents of major U.S. metropolitan areas to live under six or more layers of special districts as well as a town or city, and a county or township. In turn, a typical metro area often consists of several counties, several dozen towns or cities, and a hundred (or more) special districts.Here again we see at work the Iron Law of Departmentalization, which makes no distinction between local and central government. And the fragmentation doesn't speak to the redundancy problem, which is huge for U.S. government because the country and its population are so very large:
In one state, California, the fragmentation problem became so bad that in 1963 the California Legislature created Local Agency Formation Commissions in 57 of the state's 58 counties; that is, government agencies to supervise the orderly formation and development of other government agencies.
One effect of all this complexity is that victims of government negligence occasionally sue the wrong entity and do not realize their error until the statute of limitations has run against them.
Even the experts can't agree on the total number of [U.S.] federal government agencies, commissions, and departments. Most estimates suggest there are probably more than 2,000 of these. They each have an area of specialization — some much broader than others — but their duties often overlap, making administration more difficult. To complicate things even more, many agencies have counterparts at the state and local level.(The number 2,000 doesn't touch on the actual number of departments in U.S. government as distinct from entities named 'department,' and the article I quote above doesn't take entities into account that have come into existence during the Obama administration.)
Its size, complexity, and overlapping responsibilities leave the federal bureaucracy open to constant attempts to reorganize and streamline.
Before I leave Adolf Gasser's ideas here's a summary of his major points, from the Wikipedia article on representative democracy:
1. Society has to be built up from bottom to top.Sounds good on paper except #5, which skews everything else on the list unless the hierarchy is in a nonprofessional government administration. While nonprofessional government reflects organization, and even generates a hierarchical aspect (chiefly based on the authority of expertise and experience), this can't be considered oligarchic. Nor can it be considered bureaucratic, not unless one wants to term all organizations of people as bureaucratic, which skews both the concept of organizations and bureaucracy.
2. As a consequence, society is built up by people who are free and have the power to defend themselves with weapons.
3. These free people join or form local communities. These local communities are independent, which includes financial independence, and they are free to determine their own rules.
4. Local communities join together into a higher unit e.g., a canton.
5. There is no hierarchical bureaucracy.
6. There is competition between these local communities e.g., on services delivered or on taxes.
What About Public-Private Partnerships and Ngos?
Ngos -- "Nongovernmental organizations" -- (also called non-profits) and for-profit contractors have bred like rabbits during the past quarter century. As with the for-profits, there's been a mind-boggling proliferation of ngos that contract with U.S. government at all levels. One drawback to these partnerships is that, as with for-profit contractors involved in government projects, the taxpayer has a hard time sorting through who's responsible for the mistakes. Was it a government screw-up, or was it the ngo that screwed up? We saw this again and again at the height of the Afghan War, which employed so many for-profit contractors and ngos that nobody could keep count, let alone sort through who was responsible for what.
From the vantage point of departmentalization, no matter how noble-minded a ngo's mission, the ones that partner with government are not doing this for free. So government hiring of ngos for projects is actually a shell game with tax money -- a very expensive game. A public-private partnership is another way of saying unrestricted proliferation of de facto government departments. So there you see the Devil sitting in a cubicle, laughing at you and drinking an ngo-brewed latte at your expense.
The same problem is found in the so-called Golden Triangle partnership, the triangle being government, civil society (read "ngos"), and for-profit corporations. Coca-Cola (yes, the soft drink company) has been promoting the Golden Triangle approach to improving the quality of drinking water in Africa. But while the term was never to my knowledge mentioned in connection with the NATO-ISAF operation in Afghanistan, the operation at least in terms of 'developing' Afghanistan was "Golden Triangle" spelled backward. Again, any type of government partnership with an external organization equates to an extension of departmentalization.
What About No Government?
The idea has been suggested in the United States, and quite loudly in recent years by principled anarchists (i.e., ones that don't support violent means of challenging government), and by the more doctrinaire Libertarians. But again size matters, both in geography and population. A small country with a small population can conceivably get away without a permanent government. That would certainly solve the problem of rampant departmentalization in government. Yet this solution is not available to any large country, not that I can see.
The tack would be suicidal for the United States. One reason is balkanization. Then there is the problem of oligarchy. The term is used very loosely in this country and usually it simply means an "elite." But if Americans want to see a real oligarchy they need to look into the history of post-Soviet Russia, which is what popularized the term "oligarch" in the modern era. A handful of men got control of a vast tract of territory because there was no functioning central government to speak of, and the provincial governments were running their own shops. Actually I think it was two handfuls; I don't remember the exact number of the original oligarchs but it was around 10. Yet the rule of those oligarchs was absolute and they greatly abused their power, until Vladimir Putin and his "St. Pete" crew of deputies strapped on six shooters, in a manner of speaking.
(As to how a couple handfuls of men -- businessmen -- got the upper hand with Russia's military, I'd guess they offered the brass a deal they couldn't refuse: you can run the country and starve, or we can run the country and make sure everyone in the military gets paid, and on time.)
In any case you do not want to see a country the size of the USA with no government because nature really does abhor a vacuum in this case. Of course there are people who do want to balkanize the United States. I think George Soros has given money to every secessionist movement that exists in the USA. But breaking up one's country as a way to beat the Devil would, I suspect, give the Devil a good laugh.
What About Virtual Government?
This is cutting-edge stuff but it boils down to using the Internet as a substitute for brick and mortar government, with "adhocracy," the inverse of bureaucracy, as the means of administering the virtual government. I'll talk at greater length about such ideas in a future post. For now, and with regard to departmentalization, if the #StopKony video incident taught anything it was that the moving hand, having clicked "Like," moves on.
The virtual world is no substitute for the real world when it comes to the commitment needed to make government work. This observation goes double for volunteer government administration.
What About the Tea Party Approach?
This boils down to lopping off entire cabinet-level departments from government. The approach can't work in today's political climate in the USA, in which roughly half the voters want to keep all the cabinets.
Besides, a certain number of those laid off government workers will just go to work for ngos or private contractors that get hired by governments. So there you have right back on your doorstep all the departments you got rid of by shutting down cabinet departments. Only now these departments are even harder for Congress to monitor because technically they're no longer government.
And what happens when Congress passes legislation that requires the installation of just the type of government departments that were shut down when their cabinet-level departments were dispensed with? If those government workers were laid off they'll have to be reinstated.
Yeah. The Devil's pretty clever.
The Devil's going to stay clever unless we stop asking how to chop down big government and instead zero in on how the profit motive works to make government better.
Putting the Profit Motive, and Individual Efforts, in the Right Place
A mere century ago in the USA, as Paul Glover has pointed out, Americans were managing many of their civic duties without help from paid professionals in government:
" ... one-third of American households were members of 'benevolent societies.' They pooled money and labor to meet needs. Paying pennies per week, members built and owned genuinely nonprofit hospitals, orphanages and old folks' homes. Hundreds of such 'fraternal benefit' groups -- funny-handshake buddies like the Shriners, Moose, Elks, Odd Fellows -- were the original medical insurance companies. Farmers organized electric co-ops that brightened rural nights. They owned general stores, warehouses and granaries."Amazing how many workable solutions people can devise when they have to donate their time to governing their affairs -- and how much ready and efficient cooperation they can garner from other designated fools during the solution's implementation phase.
The same principle was at work during one era in ancient China. Doctors were paid only while the client was in good health. This spurred Chinese physicians to develop a comprehensive system of disease prevention, one that has held up even in modern times. Again, it's amazing how well the mind works when the profit motive is put in the right place.
Here's a way to put the profit motive in the wrong place: If we keep paying people to write legislation, they're going to do it to the sky, whether or not legislative bills need to be proposed. If it's a volunteer enterprise, then we'll see more consideration of what has to be written into law.
The same principle applies throughout all the tasks of governing, and this is easy to see when one studies Paul Glover's approach. Glover is a community organizer -- a real community organizer, not the faux kind that organizes people to attempt to get more out of government and support political candidates. If your community has a problem, you go to Glover and he shows the community how to solve it.
In one sentence his approach is 'Go ahead and do it.' You say your community is upset with Wall Street? Why not have the community start its own stock exchange? (He's pointed out that there used to be two dozen regional stock exchanges in the USA.) Unhappy with the banks? Why not start your own community bank or credit union? Mad at the medical establishment? Start your own medical clinic co-op. Think U.S. money is overpriced? Create your own community money; yes, it's legal tender.
Now try to imagine how much time, energy, and money are saved by this approach -- and how much negativity and conflict are avoided -- by doing it yourself rather than pouring billions of dollars into highly divisive, confrontational political campaigns that promise much and deliver little.
Those who say many Americans won't use Glover's approach because they act like sheep are wrong. People do need to be shown an action path if they don't have the time or experience to put one together from scratch. But once they understand how a procedure works, of course they'll build the path and use it.
That's what Paul Glover does as a community organizer. He shows communities how to build a path. His solutions are not pie in the sky ideas; they're practical, financially feasible, and can be done on a community basis, as Glover has demonstrated. And, as he's pointed out, this approach is actually an old story in the USA. It's a matter of remembering the story and applying it to our times.
As with everything, you get what you pay for. When we outsourced the chore of governing to a permanent class of professionals, what we paid for and got were incredibly powerful systems that allowed us to reallocate a portion of our time to dealing with personal matters. This had great benefits in some respects, but part of the price was a professional class that evolved oligarchies. These were in turn overrun by the process of departmentalization, and so order gave way to chaos. The chaos is only being managed right now, and not very well.
Trying to localize the chaos, trying to chop it down by decentralizing it, is to miss the actual situation we're facing, as is attempting to bust up a particracy by adding more political parties. The situation is that we've arrived at the point where the hassles of dealing with the chaos generated by ever-expanding permanent government are costing Americans more time and money than the hassles are worth. In that case, reallocate the time and money to handling aspects of government that citizens can reasonably do themselves on an unpaid basis. Put the profit motive where it's supposed to be and we'll see actual solutions instead of problems being endlessly stirred around.
But is it possible in this era to govern ourselves on a mostly volunteer basis? Can we dispense with the majority of permanent government institutions without ceding nationalism and plunging into lawlessness and a complete breakdown of social order? Can we insure accountability for governing decisions with volunteer lawmakers and administrators?
All that's like asking if one can walk from Boston to San Diego in an hour. No, can't happen. But Paul Glover did actually walk that entire route; I don't know how many hours it took him but the point is that eventually he showed up in San Diego. Same principle for changing the way we govern. One foot in front of the other. This won't dismantle permanent government, but eventually through attrition will offset the excesses that arise from the Iron Law of Departmentalization, which is rooted in the very human tendency to generate an endless series of problems to solve when it's paid to do so.
I'll give the last words to Paul Glover as he finishes his thought about the America of 100 years ago:
" ... Together, these mutual aid associations became an essential precursor to the middle class itself. By lowering the costs of living Americans gave themselves raises. Resulting discretionary income freed them to patronize neighborhood businesses, which incubated chain stores. Working class families asserted individuality through competitive consumption.********
And now, adapted for our times and temperament, the mutuals are needed again. We step from the treadmill of debt to take control of life."