Size Does Matter

Sometimes, it is the size that counts. And when it comes to government, bigger is definitely not better.

One could definitely posit many plausible reasons why government policies and programs always seem to fail. In truth, there are most likely a multitude of reasons why this is so. But even were all intentions pure and noble, and even if all the money and resources one could desire were available, these programs and policies would continue to fail. Each time there is a new issue, government steps in to help. And in each case, the result is a solution from a group of people who have never seen and cannot possibly really understand the actual problem.

How could someone tens or hundreds or thousands of miles away from the issue at hand possibly know the best way to fix it? How can a representative from Idaho possibly know what effect his vote on an education bill will have on school districts he has never seen in Maryland ? How could a senator in Rhode Island possibly know how his vote on an agricultural bill might affect farmers in Kentucky or a harbor in California or a consumer in Georgia ? The answer is that they can't. No one could possibly expect one person to have the knowledge necessary to weigh all of the positive and negative effects of every bill on each and every person in every circumstance in every location. And since we could never expect them to have that kind of information, how can we expect them to properly make those kinds of decisions?*

I used to live at one end of a small highway and work at the other end. The road is relatively small; it has two lanes and spans two counties. It has entrances and exits, like any highway. At the northern end, the highway abruptly becomes a road with a string of traffic lights, which ends at the entrance ramp of a larger highway. Every morning I sat at the metering light for the entrance, got on the highway, and drove north to work -- happily cruising as fast as my old car could handle. I drove for about 10 miles until I hit the first traffic light, waited for 3-5 minutes, and then sailed through that light and the other three towards my final destination. It was about a 15-minute trip on the weekend, and generally no more than 20 minutes during rush hour.

When I was done happily slaving away in the corporate world, I took the same highway back home. I got on the highway, made it through the traffic lights, and then basically stopped my car between the other automobiles on the two-lane parking lot. What was a 20-minute drive in rush hour traffic in the morning became a 45+ minute drive in the afternoon. It didn't take much of that before I spent my evenings working late, eating dinner near my office, or finding a new route home.

Presumably, people live in the same place in the afternoon as they had in the morning, and it was the same thousand or so people driving home from work as it was driving to work. Presumably, the four traffic lights at the northern end of the road were operating just as they had been that morning. Presumably, there weren't a few malicious people at the head of these lines of cars who got their kicks from driving 15 miles an hour and slamming their brakes on periodically. The single difference between the morning commute and the afternoon was the fact that all of the metering lights were off and each entrance to the little highway dumped cars onto the road 50 at a time instead of one by one.

Somehow, someone in Sacramento got wind of the terrible traffic problem on that particular highway. And the boys and girls in Sacramento decided to do something about it. The signs went up along the side of the road; an $85 million dollar construction project began. Big yellow tractors and dump trucks and such appeared at the northern end of the highway and overpasses started going up. The solution was, of course, to reconstruct that end of the highway to bypass the traffic lights. At a cost of (using my rather liberal estimate of 1,000 people on that highway) about $85,000 per person using the road. For $85 million dollars, people could hope to save 3-5 minutes at a traffic light. And this when the energy costs of running a dozen metering lights for an extra two hours a day could have saved 25.

Was this the result of the malicious intentions of the government folk in Sacramento ? I highly doubt it. I sincerely believe that this project was the brainchild of people with the best of intentions; people who were honestly trying to relieve congestion. This sort of action is the simple result of people trying to fix a road that they had never driven on and solve a problem that they had never seen. Needless to say, knowledge of their benevolent intentions does little to alleviate my irritation from the fact that the action taken was absolutely moronic.

Perhaps this seems like a simple example, but this story is indicative of the type of thing that happens consistently when you have a large centralized body that is detached from the people and the issues that it must make decisions about. This example dealt with people hundreds of miles away making a small decision at the state level. The problem is only magnified when those people are thousands of miles away at the national level, trying to make a decision that will affect millions more people for a lot more money. What seems like the easiest and most logical solution from a distance (such as bypassing traffic lights) can end up being totally worthless.

Some may say that it is necessary to have governments covering larger and larger areas in order to have more available resources. But those who would say this seem willfully ignorant of the fact that all the resources that the federal government has must come from individuals (even those borrowed will be repaid by individuals eventually). And with the cost of the additional bureaucracy, most localities end up receiving less in the end than they paid out.

Others argue that the larger governments covering more people over greater geographical areas are more efficient. They benefit from economies of scale -- they do the same thing over and over and get "bulk discounts." However, this argument only emphasizes the problems with large governments exercising their authority over more and more people. They treat problems as though they occur in bulk -- each school is the same, each hospital, each road, and each poor or homeless person is exactly the same as any other. Each problem can be solved in the same way. From far enough away, everything can be expressed as a statistic. From close enough, it is almost impossible to fail to see the root cause.

Some might claim that my highway story was the result of an honest mistake, and that we could expect most roads to behave differently. Most highways would be terribly slow with traffic lights at the end and would be faster were they removed. Perhaps that is so. But if a simple length of asphalt can be unique, then how much more so can people?

Who knows what would have been done had the problem been solved nationally? (I can guess a similar solution with a larger price tag.) So who should have solved the problem of the congestion on my highway? Probably the people who drive on that road. And what applies to roads applies to all other facets of society as well. Who knows better what problems a school has than those who attend it, work at it, or have children that attend it? Who knows better how a business should operate than the people who work there and the customers who buy their products? Who knows better how to handle a homeless or needy population than those people themselves, and who could help them better than the people who see them every single day?

The best way to find a solution to a problem (be it roads or failing schools or poverty or crime) is to really understand it ' to understand what is happening, where, and why. And to understand something means that you must get as close to it as possible. What can be handled at the national level can be better understood and better handled at the state level. What can be handled at the state level can be better understood and better handled at the local level. And when you can acknowledge this, it is only a small step to extend the argument to its logical conclusion: What can be handled at the local level can best be handled by the individuals who are actually affected.

How could you possibly expect someone tens or hundreds or thousands of miles away from you to have the knowledge necessary to solve all of your problems? The answer is that you can't. So we need to get the state to stop trying and give us free reign to solve them ourselves.

*This is not to imply that if enough knowledge were to be had, government would be legitimate. One can, and should, still object to the state on moral grounds. However, there is no harm in waging an attack from a utilitarian perspective.

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Lara Hawrylchak's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Lara Hawrylchak is currently living in the wasteland of governmental credit expansion (Silicon Valley) in an attempt to relive herself of a sick fascination with politics by bludgeoning herself over the head with taxes and tomfoolery.  It is a rehabilitation more expensive and painful than a Betty Ford Center.  She writes to avoid overpressurization from buildup of excess sarcasm.