04 October 2008

The Difficulty of Downsizing

Once in place, it seems that government apparatus are nearly impossible to dismantle. Instead, they grow in size and scope. The idea is nothing new. In testimony before Congress concerning the then proposed Department of Education, Dr. J. Gresham Machen argued that creating instrusive government agencies, particularly federal agencies, tends to be a one-way road. According to Dr. Machen, “It is very much easier to prevent the formation of some agency that may be thought to be unfortunate than it is to destroy it after it is once formed.” After an agency is formed, Mr. Machen argued, it tends to grow and gain more power, even if it does not accomplish its original goal. Any perceived failure may well be attributed to lack of power or funds, both of which, when supplemented, expand the intrusiveness of the agency.

The federal Department of Education has done just that. Dr. Machen’s testimony was given in February of 1926. If he were to see the power and scope of the agency today, I doubt he would be surprised, given his testimony. That it took nearly 80 years for the Department to impose, through Congress, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Through that apparatus, the federal government has intruded upon every classroom in the nation.

My purpose is not to debate the benefits or detriments of NCLB. My purpose is to use the Department of Education and NCLB as a warning sign of how difficult it is to remove the federal government from some sphere of public life once it has a bureaucratic foothold.

While some call for abolishing NCLB, most lawmakers kick around “strengthening” or “reforming” NCLB, or making it more “flexible”. One wonders if the worry is where the power would go. Who would “hold schools accountable” for teaching students if not the government? Who better to provide “oversight” of state and local activities than the federal government? The chorus is “let all power flow upward”. And thus, the Department of Education – a body which I would argue has no need to exist, certainly not as a regulatory body – grabs more money and increases the scope of its intrusion just as Dr. Machen warned over 80 years ago.

So as we enter this last month before the election, it might do us well to consider what government agencies the presidential candidates would create, which ones they would enlarge in scope and power and funding, and who might actually attempt to cut government.

In education, “universal” zero-to-five programs (discussed here and here) would further increase the power of the Department of education. These plans, currently shelved in Congress, would allow for federal intrusion beginning at birth. Of course, this power creep would all be for the “benefit” of the child.

Nationalized healthcare, even in some initially modest form, would certainly grow to be a bureaucratic beast. The Department of Education example aside, Medicare and Medicaid have already proven that. Once in place, destroying nationalized healthcare would take a mammoth effort, if it could be done at all. However, as opposed to education programs, nationalized healthcare is something which can be totally avoided by simply not creating it.

Perhaps there are other examples, but it suffices to say that growing government is easy – and very costly. President Bush and Congress (of both political persuasions) have taught us that lesson. Are we better off for it? Are we freer with federal oversight? Would we be yet still freer with federally mandated programs on top of the gargantuan federal programs we already have? Can we afford to build ever-larger state apparatus? Can our liberties withstand them?

I would answer no. But it remains to be seen if the electorate will begin to dismantle federal intrusion on themselves by demanding of their representatives to stop growing government. Stopping the growth is the first step to downsizing government, and it will be a tough pill to swallow for some. But if we really value individual liberty, we will begin to refuse to hand them over to the state, whose programs take power and money under the guise of “aiding” the electorate.

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