(This is the third in a planned series of four short essays on the “deep state.” Coincidentally, President Trump today is undermining the professional government by ordering staff to obstruct President Elect Biden’s transition team, firing insufficiently loyal appointees, and planting personal loyalists in traditionally non-political senior executive positions.)
The importance of competence
Hostility toward our professional government is costing our country dearly. As narrow special interests compete for national policy primacy, often the only voice speaking expressly for the national interest is the government itself—the professionals and experts hired to understand and protect those interests. That voice should be clear and respected.
The Covid pandemic has illustrated how complex problems can arise that call for prepared, centralized expertise to prevent catastrophic consequences. Not all are as sudden or dramatic, but there are countless problems and threats to our national interests and security that are being studied and addressed by government agents of all kinds. Knowing this expertise is in place 24/7 allows us to go comfortably about our own lives and sleep at night. The Left and Right can argue all day about whether the invisible hand of capitalism can solve certain problems more efficiently than government, but it’s government to which we assign the duty of watching out for and protecting the nation against threats—big and small, foreign and domestic, physical and economic.
Ironically, the importance of government competence often is most noticeable in its failures, as when the CDC flubs a Corona virus test or the FAA approves a faulty Boing flight computer program. Citizens are rightfully quick to criticize their employees’ mistakes. We should keep in mind, however, that we need the CDC and the FAA and we need them to function well; the solution to performance errors should be to insist on greater competence not less government.
Until all humans evolve to moral perfection anarchy is not a viable option and hoping for government to fail or go away is self-defeating and naïve. Government is still the mechanism, the infrastructure, through which a democratic society organizes, regulates, and protects itself. The more skillfully it operates, the more well-functioning a society will be. Sabotaging government agencies by slashing budgets and appointing officials hostile to their mission is administratively and economically dumb! It should also be illegal; it’s wasting taxpayers’ money. Instead we should use our democratic processes to demand three qualities from our government:
Functions of government generally are set by law, making them job duties assigned by the public. Most public service jobs have been deemed necessary, many are essential, and some are existentially critical. People holding these positions should be compensated appropriately and given the support needed to do the job, and their performance should meet the same high standards that would be expected in any large well-functioning private enterprise.
Duties assigned to public employees, whether by the Constitution or statute, should be faithfully performed. Poor performance of any legal function by any public servant should not be acceptable. This must include elected and appointed senior executives. A cabinet secretary should be no more exempt from failures to perform the duties of her office than any other salaried federal employee.
With few exceptions, performance of all government functions should be open to public scrutiny. Overusing security classifications and executive privilege to hide bad decisions, and ignoring or firing inspectors general to avoid investigation or criticism, for examples, contribute to a culture in which government officials can operate beyond question or even above the law.
If this all seems obvious, it should be. It’s first a question of attitude. Do citizens expect a high functioning government bureaucracy, and will they demand it? We the people are the government’s board of directors. We elect a president and senators who approve the president’s senior executive appointees. Failures of competence are ultimately our responsibility.