I had my job interview at The Washington Monthly in February 1976. Everything went extremely well. In those days most of the life of the magazine took place in three locations, none of which exists anymore: the La Salle Building, a combination cheap residential hotel and office building, where the actual office was; the old Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria, with its constant low hum of people talking to themselves, where the staff hung out; and the Safari Lounge, where Charles Peters, the editor-in-chief, lunched every day amid mounted heads of big game (unless someone else was paying, in which case he went to Jean-Pierre). I moved progressively through the office, Sholl’s, and the Safari Lounge without incurring any major damage, and I was beginning to allow myself to luxuriate in a feeling of new membership.

But when I returned to the office with Charlie after lunch, I saw something that sent an icy stab of anxiety through me. While we were out, the latest issue of the magazine had arrived from the printer; on the cover, in giant-sized letters, was the headline CRIMINALS BELONG IN JAIL.

It’s surprisingly difficult to reconstruct the standard contents of a young liberal’s mind back then. It wasn’t exactly that I, and the people at the Monthly who had argued heatedly against using that headline on the cover, believed that criminals belonged out of jail; it was more that we believed you just couldn’t say things like that. Why not? Because the information might fall into the wrong hands. Because you felt that most of the people who believed that criminals belong in jail believed it for the wrong reasons, and you didn’t want to be in league with them. Because liberals should present a united front. Because to want criminals in jail was somehow also to want to abandon all attempts to alleviate poverty. It put you on the wrong side.

Much of the early history of this magazine can be understood as a struggle to get liberals to stop blindly clinging to the weak ideas in liberalism. The feeling wasn’t so much of convincing people to change their minds about things; it was of overcoming the sense of “that may be true, but you just can’t say it” that pervaded liberalism at the time. One of the main taboo subjects—probably the main one, in terms of the energy the magazine expended on it—was the inefficiency of government bureaucracies. This subject was considered the province of diehard anti-New Dealers and Taftites, people who either hadn’t been able to come to terms with the realities of a modern industrial society or who were using a stated concern about government inefficiency as a polite cover for opposition to the basic health, education, and welfare provisions of the modern welfare state. Even among Republicans, ominous rhetoric about “big government” was considered faintly embarrassing—the kind of thing that one doled out for Nebraskans at fundraisers but didn’t really mean—until about 1978. It wasn’t, again, that everyone didn’t know bureaucracies tended toward inefficiency, it was that the idea seemed to be disreputable and not to lead anywhere useful. Frustration with bureaucracy had been almost an overriding theme of American life during World War II, for example, but nobody would have suggested that we not fight because of it.

No change in the general climate of political thought over the last 10 or 15 years has been as dramatic as the one in the attitude toward government: We’ve gone from intellectual dishonesty about the genuine issue of inefficiency all the way over to a prevailing conviction of government’s complete inefficiency. In the 1970s, Pandora’s Box arguments were often thrown at The Washington Monthly: If you open up certain subjects for discussion, unimaginable disaster will result. That wasn’t what happened in this case, though. The great and surprising political success of Ronald Reagan, first of all, demonstrated that running against the very idea of government could be a big winner, and in politics the intellectual climate often follows electoral trends rather than leading them. Also, a strain of thinking on the left that glorifies grassroots community activity and mistrusts large centralized efforts has been growing steadily stronger since the late 1950s, and it makes the anti-government attitude look bipartisan rather than merely right wing. Over the last generation, the American leadership class has shifted its base away from big organizations and now tends to be employed in various elite advising, commenting, and deal-making roles; this has made hostility to big organizations a respectable prejudice. And, of course, there have been plenty of spectacular government failures to feed the attitude.

The result is that today the mission of The Washington Monthly is quite different from what it was in the seventies. The old pervasive liberal fear of discussing issues like crime and bureaucracy has almost completely disappeared—partly under the press of political expediency, since it became clear that liberals would almost always lose unless they gave up the luxury of refusing to confront tough questions, and partly thanks to the good work done by liberal rethinkers. Today there isn’t the sense that an enormous struggle must be waged to induce liberals to confront the real issues facing the country: The level of agreement about what our problems are is vastly higher than it was in the seventies. The main difficulty now is that discussions of the mechanism for solving these problems have taken on a facile, unreal quality. One can now confidently assert, without fear of being challenged, that central government can never successfully address any problem, and that everything can be solved from the bottom up and without the participation of public agencies.

Desert Storming

Now we have to break this attitude down, and develop a body of real thinking, instead of an unthinking pose, about what makes government work and not work. The reason this is such a pressing need is simple and obvious, though to state it in the current climate is to risk becoming the kind of person friends nervously edge away from: Government is the best means of accomplishing a good many basic tasks in American society, so if government can’t be invoked in political discourse, we can’t discuss a great deal of what we need to do.

The area where just about the right attitude toward government prevails is military affairs: Everybody who has spent time around the military knows that bureaucratic inefficiency is a constantly looming danger, but nobody (except truly purist libertarians and disarmers) argues that there’s any choice but to use a government agency to defend the country. Our military history is full of examples that could be used to support the proposition that government programs don’t work—think of Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, Desert One, and the Beirut barracks bombing. Instead, in our better moments at least, we respond to such disasters by devising ways to make the military bureaucracy perform better, such as the unified field command that kept interservice rivalry from dominating Desert Storm.

But in domestic affairs, the leap from particular failures to a general dismissal of government is made all the time. It’s probably made most often in the area of anti-poverty programs—the $2 billion a year War on Poverty has been used to drag down the whole concept of active government. By now, though, the idea that government by its nature never works hovers behind the discussion of almost every domestic issue. It’s partly responsible, surely, for the decision of President Clinton (who seems to believe deep in his heart that government can work) to steer clear of a single-payer health care system, and even the conservative-sounding option he did choose is regularly attacked in terms like this one, from a New York Times headline: HEART OF CLINTON HEALTH PLAN: A SURLY BUREAUCRAT OR A PUBLIC SERVANT?

Clinton’s “reinventing government” plan, which in public relations terms is meant to appeal to people who are skeptical about government, was attacked in The Washington Times by Thomas DiLorenzo for “its failure to acknowledge the fundamental fact that government is by nature wasteful, bureaucratic, and inefficient.” The distrust of government also helps explain why by far the most expensive new social initiative Clinton has passed to date so far is a tax incentive (the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit—a good idea, by the way), not a service-providing program. It’s already clear that the big problem with the next major item on the domestic agenda after healthcare, welfare reform, is people’s unwillingness to believe that government social services can help get people off the dole—hence there is a lot of support for new welfare time limits but not much for new work programs that would get the people kicked off the rolls ready for steady employment.

There is a cognitive dissonance in discussions of all these issues. On the one hand, the idea of actually eliminating most of the existing big government bureaucracies is unthinkable, either because, as in the case of the military, everyone assumes they’re a necessary evil, or, in the case of agencies like the Post Office and the Social Security Administration, because they matter so much to ordinary people that they’re politically inviolable. On the other hand, influential people in American society—who themselves don’t depend much on government services because they use private schools, private pensions, private police protection, private mail delivery (that is, messengers, faxes, and Federal Express)—have come to use as a starting point for consideration of new problems the idea that government never works, and business almost always works. Imagine yourself, dear reader, to be at a dinner table and to make a remark like, “The federal government could really improve inner-city public schools,” or, “Government can build decent, safe housing for the poor.” At this moment in history, the reaction to your comment would be like that of Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie (jaw dropping in disbelief, eyes widening in horror), wouldn’t it?

Countervailing the anti-romance of big government is, currently, a romance of the private sector and of small local organizations. To say what’s wrong with these attitudes is to state the obvious, but it has to be done. Business is sufficiently capable of bureaucratic inefficiency that it can’t simply be assumed that it will always deliver and government never will. Examples like the automobile companies and the steel companies have become too familiar to have much impact; an example that may have more power to change minds comes from personal computers.

IBM, the traditional giant of the industry, for decades “worked” so well that it would be held up as the exemplar of the modern corporation. Then it notably didn’t invent the personal computer. But what’s interesting is the intermittent leadership of IBM. Garage inventors beat it to the PC; then, in the early eighties, IBM’s outside-the-bureaucracy Entry Systems Division became the leader in the industry; then the head of the division died in a plane crash and IBM became a laughingstock; and in the last couple of years IBM has pulled itself together and become the leader in notebook computers. The lesson is that all bureaucracies, public and private, sometimes work and sometimes don’t, depending on how they’re organized and who leads them. Conversely, small organizations simply can’t deliver everything an advanced society needs. Going back to the personal computer case, little Apple made it on the basis of technology appropriated from big Xerox; Microsoft made it by getting a crucial contract from IBM; and so on.

Government is actually full of examples of organizations that worked once or that work now. Public education is now one of the most often held up examples of a failed government program, even though, as one of the most localized government functions, it should according to the prevailing theory escape the iron law of bureaucratic failure. But what about the state universities? With exceptions, they clearly “work” in the sense that people from all over the world are clamoring to be admitted to them, even though they are run by big state bureaucracies with heavy federal involvement. (Even conservatives don’t claim that the problems of higher education, such as tenure abuse and overpricing, are characteristic of the public system but not the private.)

The Post Office is generally acknowledged to work better now than it did in the 1970s. NASA worked magnificently well in the sixties, terribly in the eighties, and now seems to be getting its act together again. During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Tennessee Valley Authority all worked, at least in the early going. During World War II, the Office of Price Administration did the theoretically impossible by keeping prices steady at a time of shortages and rapidly rising incomes. The military quickly developed such effective equipment as the P-51 fighter plane and the amphibious troop-transport boat. After the war, the interstate highway program may have been unpopular with liberal planners, but it worked. In the sixties, the military medical system in Vietnam did such a good job that it inspired a revolution in the practice of civilian emergency medicine. Today, probably the category of agency with the highest reputation inside government is the small monitoring or evaluating organization: Examples, not well known to the general public, are the Office of Technology Assessment, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accounting Office. Our system for ensuring the safety of prescription drugs, though often questioned on ideological grounds, is efficient.

Free Agencies

The skepticism about government bureaucracies—indeed, all bureaucracies—that The Washington Monthly has been trying to engender for a quarter century is not supposed to lead to a turning away from government and large organizations. Quite the opposite: It’s supposed to lead to an obsession with them that will produce a clear sense of the difference between, and the causes of, good and bad performance. At the moment, because this obsession doesn’t yet exist, it’s possible only to suggest what the ground rules are that determine bureaucratic quality (which might replace the current ground rule, “Nothing government does can ever work”).

Every agency has a constituency of clients—the people it theoretically exists to serve—and a constituency of employees and contractors. As believers in the virtues of the spoils system, we don’t think government, to work, must focus wholly on the former groups and ignore the latter. But when the employees are more powerful in society than the clients, it sets the stage for inefficiency. For example, local police forces have a large employee constituency of lower-middle-class people, and a client constituency of poor people (the class from which most crime victims and criminals come)—so they tend toward corruption and inefficiency. The same goes for inner-city public school systems, which employ vast armies of teachers and custodians while serving the powerless. On the other hand, for government employees in charge of processing millionaires’ tax returns, or making sure private jets land safely, not much inefficiency will be tolerated.

Agencies with a fresh, urgent sense of mission tend to work; so do agencies with super-capable directors. As the urgency fades and directors begin to fossilize, watch out—think of the FBI, or Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge Authority in New York. Agencies that attract bright non-lifers who know their performance will be closely watched—for competence, not complaisance—by the institutions where their economic future rests have a built-in advantage: The Securities and Exchange Commission and the White House staff are examples. Smaller agencies work better than bigger agencies. Agencies whose output is highly public and easy to evaluate (the air traffic control system or the Secret Service, for example) work better than agencies that operate in a fog. Agencies whose foul-ups lead directly to complaints be- ing made to members of Congress (the Social Security Administration) have a built-in spur toward efficiency, too.

Of course these conditions are not obtainable in every case. Sometimes they’re only temporary, and sometimes (as in the case of inner-city schools) they hardly ever exist; in other words, there are cases when institutions simply can’t be made to work on autopilot. So it’s absolutely essential that the society pay closer attention to institutional performance. The role of the press here is especially important, and currently especially shameful. Even the biggest news organizations typically ignore the entire federal bureaucracy except in times of scandal or other crisis, while, by contrast, wildly overcovering national politics. Do you know who runs the Medicaid program? Niether do I. Imagine what a difference it would make if people like that and the person who runs the Chapter One programs for poor elementary school kids, or the regulators who were supposed to monitor the savings and loans in the eighties, received one-tenth the intense scrutiny from the press that the likes of Ed Rollins and James Carville get. Reporters and editors ought to be ashamed of themselves for knowing so little about the consequences of the campaigns whose consequentiality they’re always reminding us off.

Government bureaucracies exist in the first place for two reasons, one practical and one moral. The practical reason is that in modern industrial society, not everything can be accomplished by small local organizations. The moral reason is that communities and private business don’t necessarily protect the interests of everybody in society—especially those who lack money, influence, education, and the life-stability that active citizenship requires. Government will work, some of the time, for some people: the people government can’t afford to cross. Where it won’t work is where it doesn’t work now (and where the private sector doesn’t, either), in the inner cities and other venues where bureaucratic failure is tolerated. Only one thing will make government perform in those places: attention.

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.