Collectivism and the GAO Report

Around 400 B.C., a worried Athenian comic named Aristophanes wrote:

I’ll tell you what I think about the way

This city treats her soundest men today:

By a coincidence more sad than funny,

It’s very like the way we treat our money.

America is there now. We opine on the man-child phenomenon and watch the Lost Boys of my generation fall out of their prams. Why do they spend their checks on games and toys? Because at 25 on a Saturday, there’s no difference in paying off debt at 45 and at 45 and one month; because our leaders define them as children and have created legal incentives for their parents to keep them nested. It’s unclear what came first: the devaluation of currency or the societal notion of what it means to grow up.

We’ve forgotten the nature of value. That’s what struck me the most about the new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Throughout the federal government, the story is the same everywhere. We have bloated, ineffective, incompetent, overlapping, and counterproductive bureaucracies. They are tasked with either vague or impractically vast responsibilities -- or both -- and therefore assume undue authority, confiscating and wasting billions of dollars. The left hand, of course, doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, insofar as both hands are in someone’s pocket. The report has already been publicized, but the minutia is remarkable.

Let’s take transportation. Many disabled and elderly Americans are unable to bring themselves to the doctor’s office or to the market. So the federal government has some 80 programs for the task. The GAO “could not determine the total amount spent” because the federal agencies “often do not separately track transportation costs.” (Not keeping track of costs is a common theme throughout the report.) Nevertheless, the cost for 23 of these programs in 2009 was $1.7 billion. At that rate, we can infer that the total cost for all 80 agencies is around $5.5 billion.

That’s a lot of money to bring people to the grocery store. By a conservative estimate, that would cost every American about $15 per year. For that price, perhaps a private company would deliver groceries directly to the clients’ doorsteps? The precedent set here is not “love thy neighbor.” Love thy neighbor would mean driving the elderly to the market -- or charitably paying for a taxi service to do so. No, our contemporary social mores have it that we steal $15 from one neighbor to pay for the transportation of another. The hidden collectivism in bureaucracy makes us unwitting crooks to each other.

But suppose we aren’t that cynical. Suppose we all happily agreed to chip in for the transportation of the disabled and elderly.  Suppose we even considered this the proper responsibility of government; not the local or state government, but the federal government. Suppose we accepted the strange premise that people in Washington, D.C., ought to oversee from Point A to Point B the daily movements of people in Washington state. Would it be unreasonable to grant this responsibility to one federal agency, or maybe two -- but not 80? As it stands now, the Department of Labor has nine agencies on the job. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has 11 agencies doing it. The Department of Health and Human Services has 30 agencies doing it. And on and on.