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Big government's impossible task

| Monday, May 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

One spin that many enthusiasts for big and hyperactive government are putting on the current IRS scandal is that it's unfair to blame President Obama for failing to monitor the government's vast bureaucracy — a bureaucracy so huge that no person could possible monitor it flawlessly.

An acute flaw, however, renders this spin null and void.

While it's true that no president (even with all the lieutenants and resources at his disposal today) can effectively monitor Uncle Sam's bureaucracy, this reality is no excuse when offered by people such as Obama and his apologists. The reason is that the president, being a dyed-in-the-wool “progressive,” is forever assuring the American people that libertarians and conservatives greatly exaggerate the dangers of big and officious government.

Among the core problems that skeptics of big government have long highlighted is precisely the inability of even the best-intentioned government leaders to successfully supervise and keep honest the legions of bureaucrats employed to carry out all the tasks that “progressives” assign to government. So one cannot legitimately, when seeking to expand state power, assure us that such power will be exercised with sufficient attentiveness to avoid abuse, but then — when reality exposes those assurances as fanciful — plead innocent by noting that the degree of attentiveness necessary to prevent abuse is humanly impossible.

The fundamental question raised by the IRS scandal isn't whether Obama ordered, or even knew of, the apparent misuse of the taxing power to punish political opponents. Rather, the fundamental question asks about the wisdom of creating in the first place government agencies that can so easily abuse their power in order to play political favorites.

In the private sector, we rely upon two core features of markets to protect against such abuse. First, each person is free not to patronize firms that fail to deliver sufficient value. Second, firms prosper only by — and only so long as they continue — competing successfully for consumers' dollars. But because government agencies are funded with taxes — and because those agencies face no competition — greater reliance than is necessary in the private sector must be put on the integrity, altruism and diligence of elected officials to oversee government agencies in ways that ensure that those agencies don't abuse their awesome powers.

When, as appears to be the case here, government officials turn out to be mere humans at monitoring the vast legions of government workers under their charge, it is indeed appropriate to blame and to criticize those officials. It is appropriate to blame and to criticize them not for their being human but, instead, for their promising the impossible — namely, for their promising to exercise the superhuman abilities that alone can ensure that government agencies behave with at least as much efficiency and integrity as the great majority of private firms routinely display.

The competitive forces of the market determine not only the appropriate prices and selection of products offered for sale, but also the appropriate sizes and scopes of private firms. Firms that grow too large for management to monitor effectively are not as profitable as smaller firms that are more easily monitored. Overly large firms, therefore, tend to shrink or to go bankrupt.

Unfortunately, no similar competitive forces operate in the public sector to keep the size and scope of government within bounds.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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