Sitting in New York's Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza this week, I found myself in conversation with a Rwandan woman who used to work for the United Nations, though she is now an artist. She told me that she left the UN because she became sick of the bureaucracy. She asked me, "What is the problem with bureaucracy?" I paused to think, then listed four ills: It is impersonal, unresponsive, self-serving, and inefficient. That seemed to describe my artsy, former UN-worker friend's experience quite accurately.
These four ills have a lot to do with public opposition to Big Government. (I capitalize those words because Big Government is genetically related to Big Brother.) Nationwide, federal solutions to social and economic problems (Big Government) always create and perpetuate bureaucracy and its ills. Think of the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration. These agencies have combined budgets of approximately $238 billion and employ 132,000 people. HHS administers over $700 billion, a quarter of all federal outlays, including Medicare and Medicaid payments. It is estimated that Social Security will pay out $734 billion in benefits this year.
The current federal debt crisis is driven largely by the demography of entitlements that bureaucracies like these administer. In 1940, five years after Congress established the Social Security Administration, the ratio of workers paying into the system to beneficiaries was about 159-to-1. Because of declining birth rates and longer life expectancies, the ratio is now about 3-to-1. With the baby boom generation, that post-war bulge in the population, now entering retirement, Social Security alone (to say nothing of Medicare and Medicaid) will quickly become a program for national financial suicide. But for bureaucratic and political reasons, the program lumbers on, unresponsive to changing social conditions.
In contrast to Big Government bureaucracies, consider the fate of Borders bookstores. In a column last week, Rich Lowry remarked on the efficiency of the market in serving the consumer (you and your neighbors) and weeding out inefficient and irrelevant businesses: "The store fell victim to the unyielding injunction of a truly creative economy: 'Adapt, or die.' It failed to keep up with evolving technology and shifting consumer preferences, and so has been forced to make way for more adept competitors." But government bureaucracies hang around, doing what they've always done, long after they have stopped serving the public good, if they ever did. Notes Lowry, "If Borders were a government agency, its budget would have been fattened up during the past few years, and it'd survive in perpetuity, whatever its merits."
There will be no solution to our debt crisis until we solve the entitlement crisis. But underlying that crisis is a political conflict over Big Government and bureaucracy. One party views these as the solution to just about every human problem. The other party prefers decentralized government and grassroots solutions, though they don't always have the courage or persuasive ability to follow through on those convictions.
As Europe buckles under the weight of debt-financed social programs, America still has time to address its social dependence on government entities that are by their very nature impersonal, unresponsive, self-serving, and inefficient. But time is quickly running out.