The Corner

What We Do Badly

Listening to the car radio this morning, I caught a news item about the SEC porn watchers. Some talking head from Wall Street was interviewed. He: “No surprise…SEC out to lunch…same in every government agency… The Civil Service just doesn’t function.”

That’s obviously a sweeping generalization, but we all know what he means. I recently applied for my upcoming Medicare entitlement. I did it on the internet and sent it in. Couple of days later I got a call from our local Social Security office. They’d got the internet application, but had no record of my being a citizen. Could I please call in with proof of citizenship?

I was naturalized eight years ago this week, after a long bureaucratic process. Would it have been so difficult for the INS computer to set a flag on the Social Security database signaling citizenship? Apparently it would. As far as I can determine, this simple link between key federal agencies is still not done. This is pretty dire.

Every nation has characteristic strengths and weaknesses of capability. The U.S.A.’s great strength has been in technological creativity and ingenuity. We are the can-do nation.

Here is Arthur Koestler’s Old Bolshevik in his jail cell waiting to be shot during the Stalin purges:

He had a sudden wild craving for a newspaper. It was so strong that he could smell the printer’s ink and hear the crackling and rustling of the pages. Perhaps a revolution had broken out last night, or the head of a state had been murdered, or an American had discovered the means to counteract the force of gravity.

That’s how people thought of the U.S. That’s how I grew up thinking of it — as the nation of Franklin and Colt, Edison and Bell, Ford and Fairchild. That technological creativity wasn’t America’s only defining characteristic, of course; but to millions of people around the world, it was the most salient one.

What the U.S. is bad at is civil administration. I’ve had extensive dealings with the Civil Services of three nations, and ours is easily the worst. It really isn’t a thing we do well. The man on the car radio was surely right: Our Civil Service stinks.

Part of it I suppose is just the size of this country. It’s hard to impose a uniform system on a nation so big and various, as we discovered rather dramatically 150 years ago. Another part is the old American love of personal liberty, and the corresponding mistrust of government.

These explanations don’t seem to me exhaustive, though. Getting a good civil administration going isn’t that difficult. The Chinese discovered the secret 2,000 years ago, in a country that, allowing for difficulties of travel in premodern times, was effectively far larger than today’s U.S.A. The key is rigorous competitive examinations for entry to, and promotion in, the service.

Imperial China’s civil service was remarkably successful. It was the last thing to stop working when a dynasty fell, and the first thing to get going when a new dynasty came up. It went on working after other key institutions — the central executive, the army — had failed. There was never enough money in an agricultural economy to pay civil servants properly, so a culture of corruption came up; but even that was always being resisted by “upright magistrates.”

The U.S. has civil service exams too. So why don’t we get a good civil service? Were things better, or worse, before the 1978 reform? Anyone know? I’m curious to hear opinions about this.


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