Reduction by Addition

Over at the Washington Post, John DiIlio (late of the Bush White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives) makes a point I’ve frequently made--if we want to reduce the actual size of government, we need to hire more federal workers.

As DiIlio points out, the number of federal civilian workers (excluding postal workers) has been flat for quite some time. When George W. Bush became president, the executive branch employed about 1.8 million civilians–virtually the same number as when John F. Kennedy won the White House.

There were more federal bureaucrats (about 2.2 million) when Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 than when Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 (about 2 million)…

This is the dirty secret behind all those debates over the size of government. Yes, government is big and is dangerously debt-financed, but it is also administered by outsiders — and that is what guarantees that our big government produces bad government, too.

DiIlio calls this state of affairs “Leviathan by proxy,” and it’s an apt phrase.

America has had a 30-plus year love affair with “privatization.” The problem is, what we’ve been doing is not privatization–it’s contracting out, a very different animal. As my friend Morton Marcus is fond of pointing out, privatization is what Margaret Thatcher did; she sold off enterprises that government didn’t need to operate. They became private, they paid taxes, they either prospered or failed. What Americans call privatization is dramatically different–we provide government services through third-party, for-profit or non-profit surrogates.

Not only does this mode of service delivery lead to the inefficiencies and management problems that DiIlio identifies in his article, it makes the size and reach of government less visible. It enables Leviathan.

The last time I looked, there were approximately 18 million people working for federal, state and local governments who were not on any government’s payroll. The number of employees who work for contractors doing the work of government agencies–people whose full-time jobs are to deliver government services and who are paid with tax dollars– dwarfs the number of bureaucrats actually employed by those governments. It is virtually impossible to keep track of them, let alone ensure their accountability–constitutional or otherwise.

As DiIlio notes,

Big government masquerading as state or local government, private enterprise, or civil society is still big government. And privatization that involves “acquisition workforce” bureaucrats contracting out work to entrenched interests is not really privatizing. The growth of this form of big government is harder to constrain, and its performance ills are harder to diagnose and fix, than they would be in a big government more directly administered by an adequate number of well-trained federal bureaucrats.

When you demonize government, but demand services, this is what you get.

It isn’t pretty–and it isn’t privatization.


  1. Maybe the old patronage system that plagued our government in the 19th century was at least more transparent than the “privatized” cronyism of today. We still have greedy and often incompetent people who are in it strictly for gain or status supposedly delivering goods and services. No accountability and very little concern for the customer (taxpayer) footing the bill.

  2. Very good point! While I have certainly heard of privatization in large school systems, such as Chicago, I must admit that i have heard very little about it in government. This might be something that my favorite senator, Bernie Sanders, should support!

  3. When government services are contracted out, the result is ALWAYS (& this is one of few things that is 100% ALWAYS true) higher costs or poor delivery of the service. The article does explain why this is the case, but it surprises me that the voting public is not aware of what a problem this is.

  4. Actually, some contracting makes sense. After all, we have had government procurement for a long time–no one expects government to build its own computers, for example, and often it is more cost-effective to put things like pothole filling out for competitive bid. Like anything else, it depends on the nature of the goods or services involved. The problem is that privatization has become an article of faith on the right. According to the ideology, the private sector does everything better than government. What they fail to realize is that when you contract out, government is still providing the service. It is just doing so through a middleman, often at higher cost and always with less visibility and accountability. The result is BIGGER government, not smaller.

  5. (What they fail to realize is that when you contract out, government is still providing the service)

    Additionally, government creates specifications that govern how to service will be carried out.

    Case in point: Potholes.

    City of Indianapolis, directed to pothole crew to shovel hot tar into the potholes and tamp it down. It’s now September and the pothole fixes are breaking down.

    Town of Fishers directed their pothole crew, to take out a whole section surrounding the pothole down to the sub layers and completely patch the area. Result, September and the roads in Fishers are still in perfect condition.

  6. You mean that Republican voters have been fooled again, and they haven’t learned from their experiences with Dick Nixon and the Bushes? They just keep coming back for more, expecting things to be different. They are sure that President Pence will be the man of their dreams. Of course, we know the rest of that story.

  7. Much of the noise being hurled from both sides of the great divide is about socialism and private enterprise. Strong feelings, bred by current culture. Let’s look closer.

    Socialism is defined as an economic system wherein the means of production are owned by all of us. The state. In private enterprise they are owned by some of us. In the extreme, one if us.

    Workers in both systems are us. Drawn from the same pool.

    In markets where effective competition can be maintained over the long term, usually by regulation, it has impacts beneficial to the consumer. Lower prices, higher, quality, more innovation, as different suppliers try mightily to win customers from their competition.

    In markets where competition cannot be maintained, and there are many, private enterprise is the fox guarding the henhouse. The owners of the means are unrestrained in their search for ever more profit.

    Government owned means allow , at least, consumer/voters to hire and fire the people running the business if cost/quality/innovation is unsatisfactory.

    Privatization does nothing about competition. It merely opens our wallets to the “make more money regardless of the cost to others” capitalist.

    Why do we do such foolish things? Because those who benefit, advertise effectively, expensively, and subtlely that socialism is evil. Mass Media enculturation, aka brand marketing, has become the capitalists best friend and our worst enemy.

    Can our cognition overcome our bought and paid for enculturation for profit?

    I don’t know.

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