Tag Archives: Why Government Fails

Government’s Lack of Mission

Continuing on in the Why Government Fails series, we will start with the main reason government doesn’t work: mission.

To accomplish anything an organization needs a mission to accomplish. You can’t plan unless you know what you are planning for and you can’t act rationally unless you know the reason for acting. For an organization or individual to succeed and prosper it needs a mission to work towards.

The problem with government is it doesn’t have a mission and it rarely can have clear goals. Unlike private companies, which have a clear underlying goal: make as much profit as possible within the law.

The government on the other hand does not and can not have such a clear, underlying mission because the government does not have a specific purpose, value, or interest it represents.

The government represents the diverse, mass interests of millions of different individuals, each with their own values and goals. These mass values and goals are often schizophrenic and mutually contradictory between groups, within groups, and even within individuals.

There is no way for a government to possibly please all these groups and interests, it is impossible.


Let’s illustrate with an issue like poverty.

What is the government’s underlying mission?

Is it to maximize economic freedom whatever poverty may result?

Is it to maximize economic productivity to reduce prices so the poor can better afford goods?

Is it to keep employment high so that the poor can pull themselves up from poverty through hard work?

Is it to keep wages high so workers have a good standard of living keeping them out of poverty?

Is it to provide every individual has a basic standard of living to reduce absolute poverty?

Is it to promote economic equality so there is no relative poverty?

Is it to promote consumption to reduce immediate poverty?

Is it to promote long-term growth to reduce poverty in the future?

All of these goals are contradictory. A goal of freedom is inconsistent with having any other goals. Consumption and long-term growth come at the expense of each other. Economic equality reduces economic productivity. Providing a basic standard of living reduces productivity and the incentive to work. Keeping employment high often means subsidizing unproductive activity. High wages reduces jobs? Etc.

When it comes to poverty issues, whose interests should the government look out for. The poverty industry? Industry and business? Taxpayers? The poor? Unions? The blue collar working-man? And how should they look out for it?

Each of us probably has an answer, but even then for many it would be fairly garbled. For a government official there is no clear answer. There are simply hundreds of competing, contradictory interests and ideologies, each vying for the government to benefit them and do things according to their ideology.


Because the government has no mission, the government can not measure progress. For organizations measurement is a necessity for success. A business can know it’s succeeding if its profits are higher than the year before.

The government has no such way to measure success. Using the poverty example above, how would a government measure and define success. The Gini coefficient, GDP, GNP, the unemployment rate, the employment rate, the participation rate, median income, mean income, poverty thresholds?

Each measure of success carries certain ideological implications. GDP per capita and GNP measure productivity. Gini measures equality. Mean and median income both measure differently, the latter more towards equality of income. And so on.

There is no real way for government to measure success that would be acceptable across society.


Because each group and individual desires something different from the government the government can not help but fail. If the government implements gun control half the population believes the government is failing, if it does not the other half of the population believes it is.

The government can not succeed because it is impossible for the government to please everyone. It can only choose which groups to fail.


Because the government has a mess of contradictory interests rather than clear, consistent goals, its action usually comes out as an irrational muddle somewhere in the middle of people’s interests, rather than anything resembling a consistent plan.

Each successive government has its own agenda, which it only somewhat implements due to politically reality. Each of these agendas is pasted over-top of the previous system and previous agendas. Each interest group influences the agenda to skew it their way.

This leads to government being a confused, unfocused mess with no real goal to strive towards.


Reason #1 the government fails is a lack of a mission.

The Gods of the Copybook Heading

Kipling is by far my favourite poet. Richard Anderson recently posted this poem on bureaucracy, so I’m taking the opportunity to do so as well.

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I Make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place.
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Heading said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four —
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

* * * * *

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man —
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began —
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire —
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!


Bill wrote last month about bureaucracy, and it was scathing. I have no more love for bureaucracy than the next man and all the scorn he heaps on bureaucracy is well deserved, but from my experience in the public sector, I think he is mistaken about bureaucrats.

Bill has a lot of scathing criticism of bureaucrats, but it is not the bureaucrats who are the problem, it is the bureaucracy itself. The system is what destroys.

I’m not saying there aren’t bad bureaucrats, just that bureaucrats are just like workers anywhere else. Most bureaucrats are decent enough folks, some are  assholes, and most are just doing their job and trying to get ahead. They respond to incentives just like anybody else.

There’s the problem: the system of incentives that government bureaucracy has created for its workers is what is destructive.

As Frost wrote in Freedom 25, there are 3 iron laws of bureaucracy:

1) You will never have to do anything.

2) If you ever actually do anything it will be useless.

3) If you ever actually do something useful, it will be rendered useless by subsequent layers of management.

It is this system which oppresses its own workers that is the problem.

Now, there are some not-so-great trends among bureaucrats: bureaucrats do tend to lean somewhat more leftwards and believe more in the efficacy of government solutions, but (most) bureaucrats are not trying to screw you, no more than any other group of people. Most bureaucrats either don’t care, are just going their jobs, or they honestly believe that they are helping the public.

This is the first in a planned short series of why government bureaucracy doesn’t work, where I’ll go into the incentives that create government failure in more detail.


For now though, I’ll address a few of his points:

The real power of the government is with the petty bureaucrat, the one you might see from time to time.

A single petty bureaucrat has almost no power; he can at most moderately inconvenience you. The petty bureaucrat is a slave to the rules. The biggest problem from a petty bureaucrat is not what the bureaucrat himself, but if he decides to put you into the system.

The system is a maze that is almost indecipherable to anyone who is not a lawyer or bureaucrat in that particular system. The system can ruin your life: whether it’s the family court system, the tax system, or what have you, but rare is it that a single bureaucrat can hurt you that much until you’re in the system.

The problem with the system is not with the people, it is the rules. Each person in a bureaucracy has a specific role and rules guiding his role. There are no deviations from your role or your rules. Even if breaking the rules in a minor way would benefit everyone involved, the bureaucrat is not allowed to deviate. There are also no exceptions to the rules, they have to be applied as written (and interpreted) to everybody equally, which is why you’ll occasionally here about stupidities, like bureaucrats shutting down children’s lemonade stands.

The rules are hard, cold, and unyielding. Even if they make no sense, the rules or roles are still paramount.

The people who are attracted to bureaucratic or government jobs know that they are unsuited for any social success or productive work and it infuriates them, so they want payback. What better way to get payback than to fuck with people who they know are their betters? They relish their jobs because every time they can make someone wait, audit their tax returns, place a lien on their property or in extreme cases cause someone to die, they feel that their revenge is taken.

In most countries, most bureaucrats aren’t any more (or less) competent than employees the private sector. The US is somewhat of an exception, for reasons I’ll explain in a later post. Most can, and many do, switch between the private and public sectors.

There are some gross incompetents in government, and the government union system makes removing incompetents much more difficult for bureaucracies than for the non-unionized private sector, but most government employees are reasonably competent at their functions.

Also, most bureaucrats (again, there are the occassional exceptions) don’t care about you. They don’t want to fuck you and they take no pleasure in doing so. Some may want to help you, but for the most part, they simply want to do their job so they can get paid and go home, just like most people in the private sector.

That’s not to say they won’t fuck you. If the rules they follow require fucking you, they’ll follow the rules, and you’re fucked, but that is a problem with the rules not the people and most people won’t take any pleasure out of it unless you’ve been a complete ass to them. They will feel apathy. (Whether that’s better or worse is debatable).

No truer statement was ever uttered and if you don’t believe me on this, just fuck with one of these dickheads. They will ensure that, to all extent of their government bestowed powers, they will do anything they can to make your life as hellish as possible and make you pay even more of your hard earned money than you do presently. Fuck with them enough, or just be in the wrong situation at the wrong time and they’ll ruin your life…or get you killed.

Generally, bureaucrats will not go out of their way to hurt you, but like most people they do have a tendency revenge. If you fuck with anyone they will usually try to get revenge, bureaucrats are not different. Generally, though, the bureaucrats are apathetic. As long as you don’t personally piss off an individual bureaucrat, they don’t care

They have no reference for what it is like to live as a person, much less a free individual with hopes and dreams and the means to attain them. And so, we are dangerous. We don’t behave “by the book.” And we have to be controlled. It’s all for our own best interests, isn’t it? Why should anyone be allowed to follow their individual talents and drive for the life they wish to live? That might make someone else feel inferior, just like they do. So we must be at the least controlled, and at the extreme destroyed.

It is true that progressivism and statism are somewhat more common among bureaucrats than the population as whole. For the most part though, it is not about control; most honestly think they are helping. (See the term useful idiots). Now, there are probably some bureaucrats at the higher echelons who want control and there are little tin gods at various lower levels, but most don’t want control.They are either apathetic or believe they are doing good. There is little malice behind most bureaucrats.

I’ll be going over why the system fails in the future, but for now, it is enough to say that blaming the bureaucrats is pointless. In fact, blaming the bureaucrats is counter-productive. The bureaucratic system is the problem, blaming bureaucrats rather than the system merely makes the alt-right seem petty and vindictive and alienates potential allies within the government (and yes, there are people in the government who are in favour of limited government).