Cowen: Examples of successful government bureaucracies

Tyler Cowen addresses the useful and timely question, “what are some examples of successful government bureaucracies?”:

Wars aside, here is a short and very incomplete list: the NIH, the Manhattan Project, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Fairfax County, the World Trade Organization, the urban planners of postwar Germany, some of the Victorian public works and public health commissions, most of what goes on in Singapore, anywhere that J.S. Bach worked.

The European Union has been very good for eastern Europe.  I’ll leave aside the health care issue because we’ve debated that plenty already.  The real question is what all these examples have in common.

I would add–as one commenter did–the Tennessee Valley Authority.  For commonality, I would throw out that most of these (if not all) have some sort of urgency about their objectives.  That point’s debatable, but what isn’t all that debatable is that bureaucracies without urgency and big missions tend to be cumbersome.

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15 responses to “Cowen: Examples of successful government bureaucracies

  1. Our DMV (where we get the drivers license) and car tag office (which are run by completely separate entities in GA) are both very efficient. Of course if you show up at opening time at the DMV there’s probably a wait, but every other time of the day I’ve been in and out with a new license in 15 min.

    Often when people are railing against “the government bureaucracy” they forget all about the private bureaucracy. I know every time that I have to visit the cable company’s office (or get put on hold by them), it is a far far far worse experience than any interaction I ever have with the public sector bureaucracy. Ultimately, I think it comes down to accountability. Comcast, Charter, or Time-Warner cable companies are not really accountable to anyone except a shareholder, who really doesn’t care if you had to wait in line for 40 minutes or be put on hold for 30… so long as the bottom line is good–everything is good.

    • Excellent point. In addition to those of us dealing with private bureaucracies–Comcast is as good an example as any–those who have worked within them can attest to their cumbersome, often inhuman nature.

  2. but private bureaucracies aren’t funded by the taxpayer. If you’re unsatisfied with the service you stop paying for it and find someone else. Tis not the case with the government, it will constantly feed at the public trough no matter how dismal and a failure it is. Government bureaucracies like to keep their jobs at the expense of the taxpayer and are subject to the constant will of political pressure groups and special interests

    • Beside the point, unless you are claiming that no government bureaucracy is ever effective and that consumers always have choice in private providers. As those would be unduly incautious claims, I’m assuming that’s not your point.

      • most government bureaucracies aren’t effective. Unchecked power, funded by the taxpayer, results in corruption. This is a fact. There’s no real “checks and balances” in government, because bureaucrats and politicians don’t do anything about corruption. Private businesses have more incentives to perform better. If a giant provincial/federal agency has some serious corruption issues, HOW successful are average citizens in stopping this? NONE at all, practically. Politicians and ‘representatives’ are ‘too busy’ or ‘not my jurisdiction’ bla bla bla, diffusion of responsibility ensues. MPs don’t get fired. Politicians rarely get fired. Nothing happens about it because too many bureaucrats are involved. You have to go through too many hoops. The corruption remains, and in most cases increases.

      • I’m surprised that that actually was your point. What you are saying amounts to an argument against representative democracy. You are correct that there is corruption in government, and that citizens do not have direct levers to intervene. It is the responsibility of the citizens to elect officials, and it is the responsibility of those officials to police corruption. If they fail to do so, it is the right and responsibility of the citizens to vote them out of office. That, however, is not an argument about bureaucracy–it is an argument about electoral systems.

        Bureaucracies exist for reasons, and it might surprise you to learn that efficiency is not one of those reasons. Bureaucracies exist primarily for the purposes of consistency and fairness. In the US, each agency has an Inspector General whose responsibility it is to investigate and remedy corruption. This happens regularly, and I can cite numerous examples from the current and recent administration. As you mention MPs, it is possible that you are somewhere with a parliament but without executive branch oversight in the form of an IG or similar function. That would be unfortunate, and certainly a fertile ground for corruption, but not a valid argument against bureaucracy.

        What you fail to address in your comments is the bureaucracy of the private business, especially at the level of the global corporation. Very rarely have regular citizens or shareholders had the means to remedy corruption in investment banks, software companies, aerospace manufacturers, entertainment, or food production. In each of those sectors, it has been the role of government to investigate and remedy corruption. That isn’t an argument against private industry, I should note, but rather an argument that private industry isn’t always good and bureaucracies aren’t always bad. Your comments tend to conflate several issues that do not necessarily have the same attributes. There are bureaucracies across public, private, non-profit, and non-governmental sectors across the globe. Despite what we might want, they tend to be perfectly designed for the results they produce.

  3. [ In the US, each agency has an Inspector General whose responsibility it is to investigate and remedy corruption. This happens regularly]

    this is a laughable joke. The Justice, Defense, Treasury, FBI, CIA, departments are some of the most corrupt federal agencies and no “inspector general” has been able to remedy this. Inspector generals are part of the agency anyway it’s not neutral oversight. They have conflicts of interest. This is laughable.

    [ Very rarely have regular citizens or shareholders had the means to remedy corruption in investment banks ]

    citizens have the power to stop funding these corrupt companies by not paying for them and their services. This isn’t the case with government

    [ In each of those sectors, it has been the role of government to investigate and remedy corruption ]

    -in more cases than not this has actually been to stop competition or some other advantage the company has based on some bogus ‘anti-trust’ laws. AKA governments actually have ‘down selling’ laws where it’s illegal to sell too cheaply because you’re ‘monopolizing’ by selling so cheap

    i’m a libertarian, my point is that no government is legitimate because it’s all coercive and not contractual. We didn’t choose to abide by the constitution or the charter because we were born into it. It’s not a legitimate, mutual contract. Government is coercion under physical threat plain and simple, it’s not legitimate. We didn’t choose to have PMs and senators, and 3 level courts and an executive branch and a judicial branch etc etc etc.. All of it is coercive and it usually disintegrates and becomes more corrupt

    the fact that government corruption only increases and that the size of government always increases never decreases proves that government just doesn’t work and is immoral

    • I think we have a fundamental disagreement about the premise of your argument, which makes it almost impossible for us to come to any understanding. The arguments will not come to a useful conclusion. I’ll address your points, but I suspect we are at an impasse.

      In the case of Inspectors General, they are established as independent entities. I can cite example after example of investigations that resulted in severe penalties and changes in operations. It’s worth noting that IG investigations in the agencies you mention above implicated private corporations in recent findings (Defense – Boeing, Lockheed; FBI – Science Applications International Corporation; CIA – Blackwater; etc. etc. etc.).

      I assume your point about stopping funding to corrupt companies is an attempt to delineate between mandatory taxes and optional consumer spending, and I further assume that you trust markets to prevent monopolies. I would only note that you choosing not to spend money with Microsoft (for example) will not keep the folks in Redmond awake at night. Your power as a consumer and your power as a voter are approximately equal in that neither makes a ripple on the ponds of commerce or government.

      Again, I’m not sure where you live, but as an adult there is some implied consent to be governed by your consumption of government services, assuming that you drive on roads, benefit from street lamps, are free from being enslaved by invading forces, etc. There are options for you to opt out, though–Somalia is a place where you would have little or no government (and little or no government services). If you are a libertarian of an anarchist bent, I’d recommend a visit.

      I would like to see supporting facts to show that government is more corrupt today than a century ago (and not merely better policed) and that government is larger relative to population than in previous decades. Further, I am not certain how you arrived at the claim of immorality. I understand libertarianism very well but find your arguments confusing.

  4. [In the case of Inspectors General, they are established as independent entities. I can cite example after example of investigations that resulted in severe penalties and changes in operations. It’s worth noting that IG investigations in the agencies you mention above implicated private corporations in recent findings (Defense – Boeing, Lockheed; FBI – Science Applications International Corporation; CIA – Blackwater; etc. etc. etc.).]

    –this is negligable. The defense, justice, FBI, and CIA agencies are still corrupt as hell. “Insepctor generals” will only go so far with ‘minor’ scandals and corruption, not major politically charged corruption (9/11 false-flag operations, israeli spying privileges)

    [Your power as a consumer and your power as a voter are approximately equal in that neither makes a ripple on the ponds of commerce or government.]

    –this is false for 2 reasons.

    1 boycotts are effective against companies, boycotts however cannot be done on governments because they are monopolies

    2 you’re forced with consuming government services and paying for them all the time. At no time can you withdraw your taxes and pay someone else to do a better service

    [as an adult there is some implied consent to be governed by your consumption of government services, assuming that you drive on roads, benefit from street lamps, are free from being enslaved by invading forces, etc.]

    –this is dishonest. Not only can those things be provided by the market, but we never consented to a host of other ‘services’ that are monopolies and corrupt and we never wanted to pay for them. Ie public education, healthcare, special interest funding, etc.

    [There are options for you to opt out, though–Somalia is a place where you would have little or no government (and little or no government services). If you are a libertarian of an anarchist bent, I’d recommend a visit.]

    –this is a smear on libertarians. And Somalia does have a government and the US foreign intervention has screwed up that area as well. Furthermore, right now in Somalia different groups are fighting TO BECOME THE GOVERNMENT. It is this lust to power for government that is driving the evil. The very system and nature of government (coercive force) is the source of its corruption

    [I would like to see supporting facts to show that government is more corrupt today than a century ago (and not merely better policed)]

    –this isn’t too hard. With the rise of “intelligence” agencies and militaries, covert operations and psy operations are frequently carried out at the behest of governments and special interests working with them. A century ago the government didn’t have as much control over aspects of life than it does now. EVERYTHING is now controlled by the government, food, your own belongings, what you do in your house, how you raise your kids, even whether you’re able to raise kids unless a “government” child worker thinks you’re “unfit” and takes them away from you. Virtually every action that you do regardless if it’s in your house, government will look to ‘regulate’ it.

    [that government is larger relative to population than in previous decades]

    –too easy. Government budgets have only increased annually in the past several decades, never decreased. Government deficits have only increased. Government staff have only increased, never decreased. Taxes have also always increased and never decreased or stayed the same. Government always gets bigger and more expensive, it never stays the same or gets smaller. It keeps hiring in order to serve its own interests and extract wealth from the productive class. Finally, government has gotten bigger by printing paper money dollars for the past decades ever since the gold standard was abandoned. Now inflation is at an all time high and sky rocketing, and the dollar has lost over 90% of its value. Other governments with fiat currencies have done the same.

    [Further, I am not certain how you arrived at the claim of immorality. I understand libertarianism very well but find your arguments confusing.]

    –governments are immoral because they are inherently coercive and non-consensual. If you actually understood libertarianism you would have known this

    • So, let me understand this: you think 9/11 was an inside job and Israeli spying was a significant problem for us. Those are allegations unencumbered by the thought process. As for the boycotts, can you boycott Boeing? Lockheed? SAIC? CSC? They’re private companies. For-profit companies. Capitalist companies. Can you boycott them? No, you can’t.

      As for the idea of implied consent, you do consent every day you stay here. The American people have embraced government of the people, by the people, for the people. It isn’t perfect, but we do consent to it. I am a libertarian myself, but a pragmatic one. You are as belligerent as far-left liberals who want the system to change TODAY. You exhibit a lack of understanding of how change happens, as does your president.

      As for the facts I requested, you only respond with allegations. Give me facts, and then we can have a conversation. I understand libertarianism very well, but I suspect you do not.

  5. [you think 9/11 was an inside job]

    –I don’t think I know so. Prof Steven Jones and others have already made peer reviewed research proving nano-thermite was found in the WTC dust from multiple independant samples. Nano-thermite is a highly explosive manufactured substance that can be used for controlled demolition. There was no other reason for nano-thermite to be in the WTC. Furthermore, the way the buildings collapse is clearly indicate of a demolition, and the jet liner fuel is not hot enough to melt or bend the beams. Finally the main pillar beams have been shown to be blown off with cutter charges in the photos. These central beams would not have been cut from jet fuel tens of stories up. Finally molten metal was found in the basement of the WTC. Jet fuel isn’t hot enough to make molten metal neither would it remain hot enough if it had to leak all the way down the floors and into the basement. WTC was controlled demolition just as WTC 7 was, which was never even referred to at all in the Commission report, as if it never existed.

    [Israeli spying was a significant problem for us]

    –Israeli spying IS a problem for the US. Seeing that Israel pulled the biggest false flag operation on the US, unrivaled to that of their USS Liberty and Lavon Affair. Furthermore, due to the power of the Israel Lobby, Israeli spying enjoys immunity and privelages and laxity compared to chinese or other spying

    http://www.davidduke.com/general/israel-gets-no-fault-espionage-with-friends-like-this-who-needs-enemies_14879.html

    [As for the boycotts, can you boycott Boeing? Lockheed? SAIC? CSC? They’re private companies. For-profit companies. Capitalist companies. Can you boycott them? No, you can’t.]

    —??? Private companies are boycotted against all the time. Since when does being a private company make you immune from boycott

    [As for the idea of implied consent, you do consent every day you stay here. The American people have embraced government of the people, by the people, for the people. It isn’t perfect, but we do consent to it.]

    –some sort of sick joke this is. The american ‘people’ are not 1 Borg like organism. we are individuals, and most of us never consented to the Constitution when we were born. This is dishonest. Even if you don’t consent to it you have to pay taxes. So how is that consent??? It’s force of law, coercion of the system upon everyone. There’s no consent. If I wanted to set up a tent in the woods and declare that I don’t consent to the government, then decide to grow some fruit and sell it in the market, I’m coerced to pay taxes, there’s no consent.

    [I am a libertarian myself, but a pragmatic one.]

    –what a sick joke!! Then you aren’t a libertarian at all. This is the core issue of libertarianism, that it rejects the entire basis of “government” because it was and always will be coercive. There’s no such thing as a “pragmatic” one, you either are or aren’t. Knowing how much you love government bureaucracy and think we “need” it, you have no claim to calling yourself a libertarian.

    [I understand libertarianism very well, but I suspect you do not.]

    –you most definitely DO NOT understand libertarianism well at all. Do you even read the articles on mises.org???? If you did, you would see that almost every one would disagree with your opinions of how much you love bureaucracy and think “it works” and that “we need it” and that we “consent” to government.

    • I’m approving your comment, but I think it’s time we bring this exchange to an end. In any exchange where there is rigid certainty, there is no learning. You are incorrect that I love bureaucracy, but you are correct that I think it often works as designed, is necessary in some instances, and exists by individual consent as implied by driving on publicly funded roads and benefiting from publicly funded defense, among other things. Your diatribes have not changed my views on this. Should you require more information on the necessary evil of bureaucracy, I recommend the works of Max Weber and Elliott Jacques.

  6. Pingback: Cowen calls for evidence in health care options « PublicOrgTheory

  7. Lia Holloway

    Sad to see how much public debate suffers from a lack of training in logic–when one debater has it and the other does not. Hard to understand, otherwise, how Diogenes was unable to see that continuing to live in the US is giving tacit consent to its government (and bureaucracies).

    I would like to offer a comment about “what isn’t all that debatable is that bureaucracies without urgency and big missions tend to be cumbersome.”

    Have you considered the developing Cyberspace bureaucracy with urgency and a big mission to provide for the common good against attacks like those on Estonia and Georgia?

    Unfortunately, for the sake of national security (to include expressing opinions on the Internet), from what I am reading about the Legislative and Executive Branch attempts to set it up, this is another bureaucracy that may be headed toward cumbersome right out of the shute–like the Department of Homeland Security.

    • For a good look at a nascent bureaucracy that isn’t equipped to perform, look at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. This was ostensibly a good idea (centralizing command of a sprawling intel community), but it was equipped with neither the authority nor the budget to coordinate effectively among more than a dozen autonomous entities. To your point, Lia, what may be protecting citizen rights at present is merely organizational incompetence.

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