The Virtue of Inefficient Government

The case against making the trains run on time.

Thomas Jefferson said, “The government which governs best, governs least.” But Jefferson’s wisdom needs updating. The lesson of the 20th century is clear: The government which governs best, governs least efficiently.

Efficiency in government is a more elusive concept than efficiency in the private economy, which may be measured relatively easily as output per units of input. What is the government’s “output”? But let us measure the efficiency of a government by how well it is able to implement its own goals, whatever they may be. This could be quantified in terms of money, people, or the total elapsed time between the adoption of a policy and its complete implementation. A perfectly efficient government would find its platforms instantly implemented; a completely inefficient one would expend all its resources without accomplishing any of its goals.

By this reasonable standard, the first place in efficiency must go to dictatorships–the more vile, the more efficient. The more absolute the power of the local tyrant, the more rapidly and completely his policy desires are implemented. Cruelty and unpredictability are the techniques of the real efficiency experts. Dissidents complaining? Just shoot them. Minor minions acting up? Torture them–making sure to include some of your previous favorites–and the rest will snap into line. It does cost a few bullets, but bullets are cheap. And there is always a friendly arms merchant (usually from a country with an inefficient government) ready to sell you some, even to arrange foreign aid to help with the financing.

Despotic governments are so efficient that they are easy to administer. Even the least capable or sane humans can run them. Look at Caligula, Idi Amin, and the current bête noire of the tin-hat set, Saddam Hussein. Once the opposition is dead, and all but the most compliant are purged from the dictator’s forces, what’s there to worry about? Foreign invaders or liberators? They usually serve to merely entrench a tyrant.

That these leaders pillage their people, destroy their economies, and leave no legacy apart from large Swiss bank accounts tends to obscure their achievements as models of efficiency. This efficiency hurts the citizenry because, by and large, the sort of person who wants to be a dictator is rather nasty and self-serving. An efficient government is dangerous in the hands of the wrong man. Sadly, the right sort of man never seems interested in the job.

Hereditary monarchies once provided a few well-meaning rulers. A despotic king might pass power on to more enlightened progeny. The first Medici wasn’t all that nice a guy, but by Lorenzo’s time, the Medici stock had mellowed a bit. Such brief windows of rationality did not last long, but they gave mankind a much-needed break. The Italian Renaissance flourished in small islands of such tolerance amid a patchwork quilt of fiefdoms run by local strongmen.

T here are no examples in the modern world of absolute power being wielded for anything like the greater good–and it is hard to imagine the situation arising. How would Mother Teresa ever come to power? Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but the applicant pool for this sort of job isn’t pristine to begin with.

The record of holy rulers is none too good anyway–religious regimes tend to rank right after outright thugs when it comes to efficiency. The mandate of God might seem like the ultimate tool of power, but in practice, a theocracy is less efficient than the whimsical brutality of a lone, unfettered ruler. This is not to say that religious governments can’t be brutal–they are, as a rule–but rather, that they are bound by more constraints. The word of God generally is written in some ambiguous form that is open to interpretation, and there is never a shortage of interpreters. The leaders of a religious dictatorship must always be on guard against some holier-than-thou revisionist bearing a new and improved “Truth.” In addition, the deity has a funny habit of prescribing more rules and regulations than even liberal Democrats do, thus distracting religious regimes with random rituals and requirements. Religious movements are at their most efficient when they seek very basic goals–like subjugating women or stifling free thought. Complex agendas are much more difficult for them to accomplish.

Military dictatorships generally are less efficient than those run by lone despots or the clergy. Every self-respecting dictator will decorate himself with grand military titles–but let us set these baubles aside and concentrate on dictatorships run by genuine career military officers. Perhaps it is the military respect for rank, discipline, and the maintenance of a chain of command, or–more likely–the military love of acronyms and paperwork in triplicate. For whatever reason, true military leaders are generally less effectual than plain old thugs and zealots (although their political opponents get just as dead). As further proof of my thesis, rank seems to correlate well with inefficiency: Few of the generals who have served their country as despots can hold a candle, efficiency-wise, to Col. Qaddafi. And it was a sad day indeed for hapless Liberia when it suffered the ignominy of a coup led by a master sergeant.

The Communists briefly occupied an intermediate stage in the hierarchy of inefficiency. Condemned in their heyday as having total or “totalitarian” power, their regimes were later revealed as corrupt bureaucracies, more inefficient (and thus better) than we believed. Dismal images of Russia unraveling after communism collapsed make an unintended point: At least there was something to unravel, unlike in so much of the rest of the world. Poor communism was inefficient enough that its people were able to accomplish some things despite it, but efficient enough that they couldn’t have cable TV. It sat like a ball on a hill: Ultimately, it had to roll down one side of the hill and collapse into democracy, or roll the other way and devolve into the personality-cult despotism of a local tyrant. Tito and Castro are examples of the latter, and they may soon have imitators, for it remains to be seen how many post-Soviet democracies will last.

It is popularly supposed (particularly by people who live in them) that democracies are “good,” while various forms of despotism are “bad.” The evidence favors a far simpler proposition. Simply put, governments are bad. The fundamental prerogative of governing is to control the actions of individuals, and this power is remarkably prone to misuse. Quibbling that evil leaders are to blame, not the institution of government itself, is a pathetic evasion, reminiscent of an NRA bumper sticker that reads, “Governments don’t kill people, only criminal leaders kill people.” Sorry, but with a 1-1 correspondence, why exempt the mechanism? Without the force of government behind them, Pol Pot would have been fairly harmless and Hitler, a third-rate artist. With it, each killed millions. Ted Bundy with the government behind him would have been a lot worse than Ted Bundy operating solo.

The examples of great evil done by governments are easy enough to rattle off. But what about the examples of great good to balance them? There aren’t any. Politicians and other apologists for the institution gamely assert the supposed benefits of government, but it is a short and shallow list. Good is done, to be sure, but in little dribs and drabs that aren’t enough to cover the cost. How many centuries of good government would it take to balance the score for the Cambodians?

The reason societies with democratic governments are better places to live in than their alternatives isn’t because of some goodness intrinsic to democracy, but because its hopeless inefficiency helps blunt the basic potential for evil. The constraint of maintaining constant popularity is simply too large a burden to bear. So, happily, very little gets done that is extremely bad–or extremely good.

Democracy could always make itself efficient by voting to anoint an absolute ruler. Democratic procedures brought Adolf Hitler to power, for example. But this rarely happens. Instead, democracies evolved ever more elaborate ways of tying the hands of their chosen leaders.

The prize for ultimate inefficiency goes to America. We have built in so many checks and balances that our “leaders” are the most thoroughly hogtied of any on earth. In a few weeks those of us who overcome inertia and apathy will enter polling places to choose our president, with less real choice than ever. Each candidate has tried to outdo the other in adopting popular centrist stances and avoiding anything difficult. We can rest assured that neither man will challenge the fundamental structure that will render winner and loser ineffectual, come Inauguration Day. Perhaps it would be better to have a restrained and less intrusive government, as Jefferson envisioned. A pleasant thought, but one that relies on politicians to restrain themselves. Better to let them restrain each other through inefficiency, caught in a morass of checks and balances, our freedom guarded not by fierce virtue but, rather, by simple unfeasibility. Not an elegant result, but a practical one. I think, in this sense, Jefferson would be pleased.