Relocating Washington

Carl Schramm's opinion piece in the June issue of Inc. Magazine contains a stunningly bad idea. The idea comes in the form of a suggestion which is actually somewhat amusing because it reveals the author's immense ignorance of the nature of the subject his suggestion applies to: government. The piece is titled Relocating Washington and the name pretty much says what's on Schramm's mind. He wants to spread the federal government out all over the country, with bureaus being located in areas that are rich in industries relevant to their respective responsibilities.

In the middle of the article is a picture of the Capitol Building sitting in a corn field with a caption that reads, "Friends and Neighbors: The feds might be more responsive to your needs if they lived right next door." Now doesn't that sound nice? Let's say you need one of those special services that only your friendly neighborhood bureaucrat can provide (such as audits, inspections, artificial barriers to entry, burdensome regulations to cripple your competitors, lucrative no-bid contracts, or tariffs to guard against those annoyingly efficient foreigners.) Rather than having to lobby Washington, if Schramm has his way, you'll be able to jaywalk across the street and just ask.

But aside from greater access to federal officials, the author has more pressing and important reasons for suggesting the move. The most predictable is the need to protect our rulers from imminent attack by terrorists. Consider what would happen if all of D.C. was taken out in a single strike. How could we carry on? Who would tax us? Who would provide us with "leadership" and foreign policy expertise? Who would fund the military industrial complex or covertly train and equip foreign guerillas to provide the constant stream of future enemies needed to justify a continually expanding global empire?

Who would protect consumers from the corrupt, greedy hand of business that so relentlessly seeks their destruction? Who would care for and educate our children? Who would keep people from eating too much, using harmful drugs, being unfair or, heaven forbid, unpatriotic? It seems obvious that we can't risk having the entire backbone of the Federal leviathan eradicated at once. But even if the terrorists are unsuccessful at destroying the source of the freedoms they so madly despise, the author presents yet another compelling reason why the Feds should spread out.

"One of the hallmarks of America's entrepreneurial economy is a never-ending quest to reduce bureaucracy… How is it then that our government does not reflect this truly American value? … Perhaps the best reason to dispatch government agencies to various corners of America is that it would dramatically increase the contact between u2018them' and u2018us.' In abandoning Washington's suburban cocoon, government workers couldn't help but learn lessons about thrift and creativity and (dare I say it?) customer service from the entrepreneurs who dominate the civic life of our cities and states. As policymakers got to know their new neighbors better, surely their efforts would reflect a deeper understanding of and empathy for the risks entrepreneurs run, the choices they make, and the impact they have."

So that's the reason why our government is an overblown, bureaucratic mess. If businessmen would just stop hiding their secret “lessons” from those who live in D.C., Capitol Hill would look like the Googleplex. The beltway busybodies just need some instruction in creativity and customer service. They need a greater appreciation of the plight of the entrepreneur. If they only knew what was going on in the trenches they could figure out how to help.

The preposterous nature of such a suggestion is striking. The bloated wastefulness of government has nothing to do with the fact that it is geographically centralized. The differences in productivity, efficiency and bureaucracy in the private versus the public sector cannot be solved by having bureaucrats and entrepreneurs play getting-to-know-you games or by holding neighborhood barbeques. As long as we have a government it will display characteristics consistent with its nature. The flaws in our government that the author laments are flaws inherent in the institution of government itself. They are not unique to American government, just as efficiency, customer service and creativity are not unique to American business.

Incentives are what define and differentiate private ownership and free enterprise from top-down, command systems. The former are rooted in liberty, property and voluntary exchange while the latter are based on force, deception and fear. They are completely different systems and they produce outcomes as disparate as the nature of their foundations. Until the incentives of the system are changed, we can expect the same outcome from government that we've always seen. And if the incentives were to be changed, well then it wouldn't be government anymore. A government cannot be run like a business.

In closing, the author offers one last reason to consider his proposal.

"With more contact, entrepreneurs would come to realize that, in fact, the bureaucrats aren't out to get them. Federal workers buy groceries and mow the lawn and worry about gas prices and their kids' educations, just like you do. If you want their respect, the feeling ought to be mutual."

So the Feds are just doing their jobs. They're not out to get us (try telling that to anyone who's been harassed by the IRS). Suppose we assume that this is true, that they haven't fallen in love with big government and that they don't share the envy and resentment of successful businessmen that permeates most of Washington. It's entirely possible that most federal bureaucrats are nice people who make great neighbors and who, if employed in the private sector, would be productive and efficient. The problem is that it is precisely the act of "doing their job" that puts them at odds with entrepreneurs. Their job is to harass, to regulate, to threaten, to take by force. I'm afraid that makes it difficult for the truly entrepreneurial types out there to feel amiably towards them. Personally, I don't want their respect. That's theirs to give or withhold at their own discretion. What I want is to be left alone and I don't think moving my harassers next door will solve that problem.

Instead, I have a better idea. It's true that we should Relocate Washington. Not to the far corners of the homeland, but to the far reaches of the global empire. They've done a good enough job pacifying the center, but are having some problems subjugating the periphery. If we moved the Feds to say…Baghdad and Kabul, perhaps they could get a better handle on the situation. Think how much more quickly liberty would flourish in the Middle East, if the backward people who inhabit the region could witness the greatest democracy in the world first hand. If they could just see how free we are over here they would throw down their weapons and welcome us with open arms and shower us with rose petals.

And what better way to teach them about freedom than to send a swarm of benevolent bureaucrats and self-righteous regulators to inhabit their countries. They already have a great constitution, now all they need is an IRS, an NSA, a TSA, FBI, CIA, DEA, ACF, AoA, AHRQ, NARA, DHS, BEA, BLM, CDC, COPS, CBO, CPSC, DCAA, DOD, DIA, DSS, DOC, DHS, HSS, DOT, DOE, EPA, EEOC, FAA, FCC, FDIC, FEMA, FTC, FDA, GSA, GAO, GPO, HUD, ITA, DOL, MDA, NASA, NIST, NIH, NOAA, OSHA, OMB, ONDCP, SEC, SBA and an SSA. Then they'll be well on their way to enjoying the freedoms and liberties that we Americans enjoy.

June 22, 2006