This incompetent era

During the 2012 presidential campaign, it became obvious that Mitt Romney had a penchant for delivering “inelegant” phrases, as he would come to call them.  (Barack Obama has a gift for them too, but only conservative bloggers ever make a big deal about them.)  Romney got a lot of heat for his “47 percent” remarks, in which he said that securing the votes of people who collect government benefits without paying taxes was not his concern.  But he made a far greater “gaffe” right at the outset of his presidential quest, when he said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

This was immediately caricatured and mis-quoted by liberals as Romney imitating Monty Burns from “The Simpsons,” cackling with cruel delight at the thought of slapping innocent victims with pink slips.  But the full context of his remarks were actually an even bigger “gaffe.”

What Romney actually said was that “if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say, ‘I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.”  He was talking about health care, and the dangers of adopting almighty Uncle Sam as the insurance provider nobody can ever “fire,” no matter how inept he proves to be.  “I want individuals to have their own insurance,” Romney explained.  “That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy.  It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them.”

Wow!  What planet did this guy come from?  Incompetence is king in American government, and the voters just can’t get enough of it.  They love having overlords they can’t fire for providing bad service.  It’s considered rude, and perhaps even immoral, to question the quality of government services.  This has the virtue of absolving the citizen of any responsibility for rationally evaluating the quality of the “service” he is receiving.  He can reserve his energy for what has devolved into a tribal and irrational process of voting for a new “board of directors” every few years – a contest which, for too many people, is more like rooting for a football team than discharging a vital civic duty.  All thought of actually firing Washington Inc. for its ineptitude has been banished from their minds.  They can scarcely even conceive of privatized “competitors” for its “business.”

When the competence of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was recently called into question – on the entirely reasonable grounds that a candidate for Secretary of State should not be serving as either a dupe, or willing stooge, for laughably false propaganda – the Democrats and their media allies howled that charges of “incompetence” were nothing but code words for racism.  The automatic equation of incompetence with a particular racial background was once the province of racists, but now it’s rhetorical fodder for the (loudly) self-declared “enemies” of racism.  This is partially because the notion of rationally scoring a powerful Washington figure for competent performance, the way most of the rest of us must occasionally stand for performance reviews, seems quaint and odd to our political class.  What matters are connections, power bases, and how much political capital can be spent to keep officials parked in their jobs.  Whether they are demonstrably “good” or “bad” at their jobs is not terribly relevant.

This is not a new development, and it’s not limited to individual bureaucrats.  The overall performance of the federal government is not taken into consideration, at all, when debating whether or not to give it more money, or allow it to keep spending money it doesn’t have.  Ronald Reagan famously observed that our central government fought a trillion-dollar War On Poverty… and Poverty won.  Thirty years on, the government spends a trillion dollars it doesn’t have every year, to fight countless domestic-policy “wars” it loses with equal decisiveness.  We have “energy policies” that produce less energy, compulsory government “investments” that collapse into black holes of failure, and “jobs bills” that make the workforce smaller.

But no one, including most of the ostensible advocates of fiscal restraint and smaller government, makes the case that we should begin seriously dismantling this perpetually malfunctioning bureaucratic machinery.  No one says, “Good Lord, none of this is working.  The people paying for it have been defrauded!”  Instead, the people paying for it are attacked with venomous enthusiasm for their reluctance to pay even more.

We have a government that doesn’t even pretend to pass budgets any more.  It has catastrophically failed at its simple, essential duty to take good care of the money American citizens give it.  But it’s not punished for this failure… it is rewarded.  The accumulated consequences of its fiscal failures are present as an irresistible argument that it must grow larger.  And even though some of the same people have been perched in Congress and the bureaucracy for decades, no one is called to account for running the kind of racket that would have gotten shut down for malpractice and accounting fraud, if it were a private-sector business.

It’s a mistake to equate elections with private-sector performance reviews, because they’re not even remotely comparable.  Politicians, particularly the big national figures, are judged according to countless factors beyond their competence in any one area.  It doesn’t matter that Barack Obama proved to be one of history’s worst investment counselors; he always knew there would be plenty of other factors in his re-election.  In the private sector, your banker, doctor, and local auto dealer are separate people, and you can stop doing business with any one of them, without affecting the others.  The President of the United States is now all of those things rolled into one, and it can be difficult to build popular consensus for termination due to even the most comprehensive failures.

The demand for competence grows from personal responsibility.  Helpless dependents have much lower standards for those who feed them.  The more voters are made to feel like hapless prey in a wilderness of capitalist predators, the less qualified they feel to judge government based on anything but the poetry of its promises.  A lot of people do not share Mitt Romney’s appetite for evaluating the performance of his insurance providers, or even his doctors, and giving them the boot if they don’t meet his expectations.  They’d rather be told what to do, by a State that presents itself as the only suitable object of their trust.  They would rather applaud the passage of a bill, and the accompanying fireworks display of good intentions, than scrutinize the actual performance of the agencies it creates.

The move to centralize power in Washington removes the competition that still exists between state governments.  “Progressive” theory insists that no marketplace occupied by the government will ever be returned to the people – the accumulation of power is a one-way process.  That leaves Washington with progressively fewer competitors to worry about… and when you have no competitors, why get all worked up about competence?  Your “customers” aren’t going anywhere, and you can increase the price of your “services” without concern for their quality.  That’s why this incompetent era has proven to be very, very, expensive.