Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Civil Service

I often agree with Matt Yglesias on matters of political procedure reform, but I'm not sure I'm on board with this one:
I think this also counts on a reason to prefer systems that rely more on career civil servants and less on political appointees. Bureaucrats have their own distinctive psychopathologies, but they’re different, and it’s helpful to have them in more tension and balance than exists in the United States.

Matt is interested in making government more effective, as am I, but I think that a sure-fire way to keep that from happening is to empower the civil service. I'm a fan of British TV, and one of the very best British shows is Yes, Minister, a show about a low-level cabinet minister in the British Government. The antagonist of the series is the minister's "permanent secretary", Sir Humphrey, who basically does everything he can to thwart his "boss"'s ideas, whether by deploying his encyclopaedic knowledge of the government, his connections with other civil servants, and bureaucratic inertia to stop anything from getting done. Why? Because he (and the other civil servants) worry that major change will somehow blow back to disempower them. There's a great speech early in the show where Sir Humphrey talks about how most people judge their worth based on how much they make, but civil servants can't do that because they don't make much and their salaries are proscribed by law. So they judge their worth based on how much money and power they can steer to their departments, and anything that doesn't go directly toward that is not exactly welcomed.

Actually, there's quite a bit of British pop culture that discusses the tyranny of the civil servants--The Kinks and A Very British Coup come to mind. Essentially, they run the government, they're there forever, and they're so powerful they can easily thwart the typical minister that's only there for a few years and hardly knows anything about running a department. And they're not exactly a benevolent, respected force in British culture (I largely hear the same from real Brits I know as well), so much as a status-quo wedded group that fights change from every direction.. I think I'd rather stick with political appointees instead, even with all their flaws, albeit with greatly diminished Senate confirmability (let them confirm the Cabinet and judges, I say).

In general, though, I agree with Matt and disagree with Will Wilkinson that rule by the power-hungry is pretty much inevitable. But it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Democracy is predicated upon two of the most powerful and opposing desires of humanity: self-interest and public interest. You elect people to represent your interests, but they need to work together to get anything done. I don't feel we've quite hit on the right mixture of these things, but the most power-hungry person out there might well decide that the best way to maintain that power is by ruling justly and enacting popular programs (Lyndon Johnson strikes me as a model of this, Vietnam notwithstanding). In fact, politicians' desire to win re-election is one of the best ways there is of keeping politicians honest. One argument against the two-term limit on the presidency is that presidents (like second term Bush) will be less inclined to do crazy unpopular things if they have the possibility of running again (though the track record of presidents seeking third terms before the 22nd Amendment is decidedly negative--basically, after eight years, the people get sick of you). Self-interest is a pretty key element of human nature, and shrinking government won't make it go away. I'd be interested in hearing more on a libertarian framework for managing this phenomenon, but let's just say that I don't find the explanation that eliminating government involvement will eliminate the consolidating tendencies of markets very convincing. Microsoft didn't need any help from the government to become a near-monopoly, after all. By the time the government got interested in doing anything about computers, Microsoft's victory was total.

Oh, and by the way, I urge you all to check out Yes, Minister. It's free on Netflix instant viewing, and it's great viewing, especially if you're of the libertarian bent. I'm generally not of that persuasion (even though I thought it was hilarious) but if you are, my guess is that you'll love it even more. It was the Eisenfrau's favorite show at the time, for what it's worth.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.