• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Get outta my way

    Years ago, Joanne Jacobs wrote for Reason about the controversy over a charter elementary school in San Francisco. In one particularly memorable paragraph, she tersely described the conflict between entrenched public schools and upstart private companies:

    Typically, these schools are underfunded, thin on management, and dependent on donated legal services. However, about 10 percent are run by school management companies that are — in theory, if not in fact — for-profit businesses. They are run by professional managers, staffed by lawyers, and much harder to bully. Their pitch is simple: If we succeed in running good schools, we’ll attract students and make a profit. If we fail, take back the school and try something else. That’s not the way things are usually done in the public school system. Traditionally, nothing succeeds like failure. Failure is rewarded with more money for more programs, more specialists, and, of course, more failure. Success, on the other hand, is a risky business. It destroys excuses. It raises expectations. It’s even worse when a profit-seeking business succeeds with high-risk students. If customer-serving, bottom-line-adding businesses can run schools, that opens the door to a host of market evils: Independently run charter schools staffed by non-unionized teachers. Voucher-empowered parents shopping for their schools of choice. Teachers deprived of political power and turned from selfless public servants to soulless corporate employees.

    I’ve thought of that paragraph often over the last decade, and I was reminded of it again while reading this much-admired post a few days ago (via Instapundit):

    The business of government, outside of the military and law enforcement, does not involve accomplishing missions or solving problems. Government agencies don’t view “success” as resolving the issues they were created to address, and shutting their doors after declaring victory. In fact, as you can see from the example of NASA, they would regard a tight focus on their original missions as regrettable stagnancy. Bureaucracies grow through failure. They present failure as a rationale for increased budgets, which they must spend with gusto, in order to submit an even bigger budget the following year.

    This system only works if politicians and bureaucrats are not held accountable for their failures. Naturally, they develop the ability to avoid accountability as a survival skill. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Department of Education, which touts the miserable performance of its unionized teachers as clear evidence that it needs more money. If you question any of this, or point to administrators with pensions costing tens of millions, you are said to oppose education.

    As Eric writes, it’s easy to turn Americans’ general goodwill against us:

    By definition, growing strong through failure is the strongest possible form of strength. While it might seem impossible to combat, its one major weakness is that it relies on camouflage. The failures of bureaucracies are never blamed on or admitted to be in any way the result of the bureaucracies themselves, but are seen as new challenges facing us all. The reason people accept that at face value is because most citizens are people of good faith, who genuinely want to believe that the government is working for us all.

    Few things drive me up the wall more than the reflexive assumption that moving an activity from the private sector to the public sector magically ensures that it will thenceforth be tended to by saintly, selfless, civic-minded souls who hold their output to the highest possible quality standards. That the pile of disconfirmatory evidence for that proposition would dwarf Mt. McKinley somehow doesn’t seem to faze people. America is no longer a young, agrarian backwater, in which government service diverted energy away from, say, managing the family lands more profitably. America is now the world’s largest economy and power player, in which government service is a lucrative career path of its own, often (to judge from what they say in front of microphones) for people who wouldn’t know innovation or efficiency if it jumped up and bit ’em in the ass. It’s utterly maddening, for those of us who are accountable to our customers and spend our working days looking for ways to get more done with less input, to be sermonized at by these characters.

    And, as Eric points out, just voting out the current crew only does so much, because unelected officials are a big part of the problem. (It’s way worse in Japan, the electorate of which just took away the DPJ’s majority in the upper house of the Diet, BTW, but it’s quite bad enough here.) They and their elected enablers do a lot of talking about how the Government is the People, all while working sedulously to insulate themselves from the competition and feedback that obtain in the working lives of the People outside the Government. Nice work if you can get it.

    Leave a Reply