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All We Need is the
Right People to Run the Government
By Melvin D. Barger
It's been a time-honored practice in America to "throw the
rascals out" when things go wrong in government. This supposedly is
merely the public sector version of what happens when the manager
of a losing baseball team is replaced, or the chief executive
officer of a failing corporation gets the axe.
Nobody should dispute the fact that government operations
require capable, experienced people who know how to do their jobs.
We've all probably had unpleasant bouts with incompetent public
officials and clerks, and we wish they could be replaced.
But when government expands beyond its rightful limits, problems
arise that have little to do with the competence and abilities of
its officials and employees. The delusion that these problems can
be solved by replacing officials only delays the day when people
face the hard questions about what government should do and should
Thanks to the relentless expansion of government, however, these
questions are being asked the world over, with surprising solutions
in some cases. There is growing criticism of government operations
and regulations. There is also a rush to "privatize" many services.
Though privatization moves are being made for economic reasons
rather than to restore liberty, they still appear as hopeful
The most important reason for limiting government to its
rightful peacekeeping functions is to preserve and promote liberty.
If this is done, people working alone or in groups will eventually
find wonderful ways of dealing with the many human problems that
government promises to solve, and meeting the human needs that
government promises to meet. But as we now know, problems and needs
continue to grow while the government colossus has created dangers,
such as mountainous public debt and group conflicts that threaten
us all and seem beyond solution. These problems worsen no matter
who seems to be running things in government. Even people who used
to have almost religious faith in the powers of government are
becoming disillusioned as its clay feet become more exposed.
A second dilemma with excessive government is that it must
always be run bureaucratically. Bureaucracy can be a maddening
thing for people who have been accustomed to the speed and
efficiency of market-driven services. When confronted with
bureaucratic actions that displease us we tend to blame the
officials in charge and call for their replacement.
But unless the officials we want replaced are completely
incompetent, rooting them out is usually a waste of time and
effort. As Ludwig von Mises explained many years ago, bureaucracy
is neither good nor bad. Bureaucratic management is the method
applied in the conduct of administrative affairs the result of
which has no cash value on the market, though it may have other
values to society. It is management bound to comply with detailed
rules and regulations fixed by an authoritative body. "The task of
the bureaucrat is to perform what these rules and regulations order
him to do," Mises explained. "His discretion to act according to
his own best conviction is seriously restricted by them."
Thus bureaucracy is good (and inevitable, but easily excessive,
and even ridiculous and unresponsive much of the time) when it is
applied in public operations such as police departments, military
forces, and records bureaus. But it becomes oppressive and deadly
when it is imposed on business enterprises and other human
activities. As Mises shrewdly saw, the evil in bureaucracy was not
in the method itself. "What many people nowadays consider an evil
is not bureaucracy as such," he pointed out, "but the expansion of
the sphere in which bureaucratic management is applied."
Mises then contrasted this bureaucratic system with business
management or profit management, which is management directed by
the profit motive. Managers, driven by the need to stay profitable
(which is to say, to keep costs below income), can be given wide
discretion with a minimum amount of rules and regulations. And
customers will quickly let them know whether the business is
providing proper goods and services and prices which customers
This profit-driven system has its opponents, of course, and this
creates problems and frictions for entrepreneurs who want to
compete for our business. Some opponents fear the new competition,
while others deplore the entrepreneurs' use of resources. And one
of the most effective ways of hampering entrepreneurs is to put
them under either limited or total government regulation and
control-that is, replacing profit-driven management with at least
some degree of bureaucratic management.
So what we have in today's world is a great deal of government
with additional regulation and control of private business. There
is lots of grumbling about the fact that "the system doesn't seem
to be working," but nobody is likely to fix it. At election time,
glib office-seekers promise to reform the system and "get the
country moving again." This doesn't happen, and general
dissatisfaction is growing.
And there still seems to be a persistent delusion that "putting
the right person in charge" will fix the problem. One favorite
government response, when conditions worsen in an area, is to
appoint a "czar" with special powers to bring everything together
with businesslike efficiency. We have had numerous "czars" to
control energy and prices, and one was recently named to deal with
health reform. However highly touted, these czars soon turn out to
be no more effective than the Russian rulers who gave rise to the
Another common fallacy, a favorite idea with pro-business
political administrations, is that government operations will work
better if capable business executives are found to head them. But
as Mises perceptively noted, "A former entrepreneur who is given
charge of a government bureau is in this capacity no longer a
businessman but a bureaucrat. His objective can no longer be profit
(generating more value than cost), but compliance with the rules
and regulations. As head of a bureau he may have the power to alter
some minor rules and some matters of internal procedure. But the
setting of the bureau's activities is determined by rules and
regulations which are beyond his reach."
Some people thrive in this sort of work and turn out to be
excellent bureaucrats. They are the right people to run government
operations when government is limited to its rightful peacekeeping
functions. But if our purpose is to preserve and promote liberty
while seeking the benefits of a market-driven economy, we'll look
in vain for reasonable answers and solutions from government-no
matter who runs it. We are slowly learning this lesson, though at
great cost. We should, of course, continue to follow the
time-honored American practice of "throwing the rascals out" when
elected officials are performing badly. But in today's world, the
officials we're criticizing might not be rascals at all, but just
conscientious people trying to do jobs that shouldn't have been
created in the first place.
systemic and intractable.
"No More Czars, Please" by Lawrence W. Reed:
"What's So Bad About Big Government Anyway?" by George C.
"Hayek Was Right: The Worst Do Get To the Top" by Lawrence W.
"The Economy Needs More Planning-Central Planning,
That Is" by Lawrence W. Reed:
"Can Government Manage the Economy?" by James L. Payne:
(Editor's note: This essay by Ohio businessman and writer
Melvin D. Barger appeared in the 1994 edition of FEE's book,
"Clichés of Politics," edited by former FEE trustee Mark Spangler.
His citations of Ludwig von Mises all come from Mises's 1945 book,