Thursday, July 28, 2011

"What If You Had To Run Your Business Like A Government?"

Frederic Paul has the genius idea of turning around the old saw about how we should run the government 'like a business,' and instead asks, "What if you had to run your business like a government?"

The result is a hilarious list of ten crazy-making limitations, obligations, and stupidities you'd face. For example, "2. Your business plan requires you to focus on your least-profitable customers."

It makes a great read, and I urge you to go read it, it'll give you a rueful laugh.

And when you're done laughing, see if you can derive from it the insights our Founders had two hundred years ago.

Because this article is (or should be) clarifying: These problems are exactly why we should hesitate to seek, as our first choice, government solutions for our problems. Because it's hard -- really, really hard -- for governments (at all levels) to solve problems -- by the very nature of political government. Which is, that government is at its core, and must be, political. (Even dictatorships; maybe especially dictatorships, which would help us understand why the rulers of Libya and Yemen and Pakistan don't just spontaneously start to 'do the right thing..)

The limitations of government are inherent in the nature and structure of government. They can't be 'fixed' by electing this or that political party, or ideology, or "good government" candidates, or honest John Doe's. Or by political will, or a sudden dose of realism on the part of voters. It's why the current (as of this writing) argument over raising of the US Federal debt ceiling is at an impasse -- 'compromise' say the pundits; who themselves wouldn't dream of compromising on their core political beliefs (compromise is always the job of the other guy).

Governments are bad at solving problems. Especially big problems. Especially problems that have political elements -- as almost all problems do. Especially problems that give rise to 'special interests,' or solutions that themselves give rise to more 'special interests.'

This was the fundamental insight of the Founders. You can't construct a government that will be composed of 'the right' people. So government power will from time to time (try: most of the time) be in the hands of bad people -- or people whose ideas of how to use that power you don't agree with.

So we should be very selective about what we ask government to do. And try really hard to find other ways to fix problems and address issues -- ways that don't rely on the weak reed of government.

("But they have so much POWER! and MONEY! If only they'd do what I want...." Sigh. We'll never learn....)

If you really care about an issue -- you should be willing to invest in coming up with a solution that minimally relies on the successful operation of government laws and rules, government regulations and bureaucrats, government police forces, and (most of all!) government politicians.

Listen, we know this at a basic level: We all hate office politics -- so why do we love government politics? Do we delude ourselves into thinking the people who exercise political power in government are on our side more than the office 'players' are on our side at work? Or on the condo board? Or the PTA board? Or the neighborhood committee?

I sincerely commend to you the most important book about government ever written: Frederic Bastiat's 'The Law'. -- It's under 100 pages long, can be bought for a song on Amazon or downloaded as a free PDF.

Bastiat was a lawyer and member of the French Assembly in the 1840s, during a period of radical unrest in France. One of his most interesting arguments was that  giving government responsibility for difficult, even unsolvable, national social problems meant dooming the government to failure -- and as the government fails at task after task, respect for the government is diminished -- to the detriment of all.

One example he used was feeding the poor; he argued that making the government responsible for ensuring that everyone was properly fed was foolish, especially for those in the government. You'd surely fail. There would always be those  not helped. In 19th century France, the problem was far more severe, and difficult to solve, than the present day of prosperity. So all you'd be doing is ensuring that the government would be hated for its ongoing, unavoidable failures, and constantly be under attack.

In other words, if you really cared about helping the starving people, you'd try to find a way to help them without dumping it into the laps of politicians. It's so tempting -- they have all that money, they can steal from/tax those damned rich (the ones richer than me, I mean), they can issue orders and pass laws at will -- all that power! But the nature of political government makes it unlikely that, if the poor are improved, it will be anything the government has done. In fact, all too often you'll find the government a stumbling block in the way of reform, new markets, lower prices, better choices, and more opportunity. Why would you want to do that to poor starving people?

It's a very interesting book, makes points I've never heard anyone else make, and does so succinctly and directly. I recommend it to you.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Crowdsourcing The Fight Against Corruption

India is a nation famed, if that's the word, for official corruption -- the oppressive bureaucracy is made worse by the expectation that every single useful thing you want them to do comes at an extra-legal price.

Official attempts to control corruption are, as everywhere, useless.

But the Web changes everything. Someone set up a site where Indians can report examples of bribes requested, bribes paid, bribes refused. It is described in a BBC News piece title "Bribery in India: A Website for Whistleblowers," by Mukti Jain Campion, at . The site they refer to is called I PAID A BRIBE, at . There you can, anonymously of course, Tell Your Bribe story (and flag it as 'I Paid a Bribe,' 'I Didn't Pay a Bribe,' and "I Didn't Have to Pay A Bribe.'). It makes fascinating reading.

It's slowly having some effect. The driving test unit in one Indian state was notorious for demanding bribes (and not correctly testing drivers, so bad drives were getting licenses - a double wrong). The embarrassment caused by the reports o I Paid A Bribe forced the unit to implement the world's first automated driving test center, where your skill at driving the course is monitored and reported by machines rather than bribe-hungry officials.

Fascinating stuff!