Monday, February 26, 2007

Is Big Government Programmed to Fail?

Theodore Dalrymple has a terrific essay at City Journal about the rising incompetence of British public services. Her Majesty's realm is drowning in a plague of miserable public services – schools characterized primarily by ignorance, law enforcement devoted more to tallying and taking credit for irrelevant crimes rather than solving meaningful ones, on and on and on. The United Kingdom is in his telling becoming a dystopian nightmare where every problem is the province of the state, which upon attempting to solve it makes every problem worse.

Toward the end he flirts with the charge that this is intentional, that bureaucrats taking over tasks best left to free men and then running them incompetently causes the public to cry out for yet more bureaucratic oversight:

How is this to be explained? I learned a very good lesson when, 20 years ago, I worked in Tanzania. This well-endowed and beautiful country was broken-down and economically destitute to a shocking degree. A shard of mirror was a treasured possession; a day’s wages bought a man one egg on the open market. It was quicker to go to Europe than to telephone it. Nothing, not even the most basic commodity such as soap or salt, was available to most of the population.

At first I considered that the president, Julius Nyerere, who was so revered in “progressive” circles as being halfway between Jesus Christ and Mao Tse Tung, was a total incompetent. How could he reconcile the state of the country with his rhetoric of economic development and prosperity for everyone? Had he no eyes to see, no ears to hear?

But then the thought dawned on me, admittedly with embarrassing slowness, that a man who had been in power virtually unopposed for nearly a quarter of a century could not be called incompetent, once one abandons the preposterous premise that he was trying to achieve what he said he was trying to achieve. As a means of remaining in power, what method could be better than to have an all-powerful single political party distribute economic favors in conditions of general shortage? That explained how, and why, in a country of the involuntarily slender, the party officials were fat. This was not incompetence; it was competence of a very high order.

Could the growth and failures of the Administrative State be due to something as simply duplicitous as that? Only a cynic would suppose so, and yet, as the I-cynic notes, a cynic is nothing more than "an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision."

Read the whole essay. As with most of what Mr. Dalrymple writes, it is terrific.


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