Big government's impossible task
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Man found dead in Lower Burrell
- Plum students protest orders to keep mum about sex cases
- Injured Penguins optimistic about returning next season
- Crosby, Malkin want to remain in Pittsburgh
- Lawyers present procedural arguments for AG Kane’s contempt hearing
- Pirates notebook: Wainwright injury doesn’t sway Hurdle on DH
- Coach Johnston trying to figure out why Penguins ‘fell off a cliff’
- Washington’s Shelton grows into big role, looks forward to draft
- Mylan rejects Teva’s $40 billion takeover bid
- Behind starter Liriano, Pirates complete sweep of Diamondbacks
- Reports grim for Pennsylvania’s state-run veterans homes