Tag Archives: Leviathan by proxy

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.