William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Theory of Increasing Government Idiocy

In software, it’s called feature creep. This is the bloat or encrustation that forms on a working computer program. It is caused by adding overly specific functions that originate with a “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a…?” but which are not strictly necessary, or even inapposite to the software’s main purpose.

As a piece of software ages, function creep is almost inevitable unless it is kept harshly in check. Lead engineers must be brutal in slapping down minor functionaries that come to him with wish lists. “We need new rules!” they will plead, tears in eyes. But he must harden his heart and focus on the software’s main mission. For the moment he gives in to one request, he will give in to others, and the software begins to pick up debris like a snowball rolling down a hill. Finally, the code reaches the point where it is barely recognizable from it earlier self; where it once took only one person to run, it now takes a dozen, four of them consultants with large hourly rates and occult knowledge.

How does such software survive? It cannot, unless it is a monopoly, unless all are forced to use it because it is the only option. Then the sluggish, brute package becomes commonplace, people adapt and they stop questioning their needless toils. Upstart rivals to the software are not just slapped down, but it is thought rude to question or consider them. At last, however, the package becomes so laden with gook, it collapses in on itself, and takes it users with them.

As it is with software, so it is with governments.

This country was founded on the idea of liberty, on the sentiment of Leave Me The Hell Alone Unless You Have A Damn Good Reason. We quickly went beyond, what some see as the necessities, of a police force and Army—many at the beginning argued against a standing Army!—to the paperwork spewing, rule generating, regulation creating, money confiscating, swollen carbuncle we have today. We have not yet reached the point where every possible aspect of our lives has at least one bureaucracy watching over it, but such a state cannot be far away. How did this happen to such freedom loving people?

Caring. The feature-creeping nightmare of excess niceness and solicitous mothering brought on by the love of our fellow man. The old joke used to be that a sweater was defined as a garment a child put on when the mother got cold. The new joke, on us, will be that a sweater will be required by law to be worn by children when the wind chill index drops below 50o F. Regulations will ensure sweaters, to be properly called sweaters, must have at least so many knots per square inch, the yarn thickness at least so many thousandths of an inch. Caliper-wielding bureaucrats will be dispatched to retail stores to issue hefty fines for those in violation. Any that complain will be told (1) “It’s the law” and (2) “It’s for the good of the children!”, a statement against which there is no rational counterargument.

A joke? Then how about this story: a Middleville, Michigan woman threatened with fines for watching her neighbors’ kids. Those kids stayed with hers at the school bus stop in front of her house. Her neighbor, a close friend, had to leave for work before the bus arrived, and our lady, for no fee, watched over them. A busybody ratted her out and she was charged with operating an illegal day care center. One at which the absence of paedophiles had not been properly certified! She was duly told to cease or face imprisonment. A Department of Human Services “spokesperson would not comment on the specifics of the case but says they have no choice but to comply with state law, which is designed to protect Michigan children.” We recoil now, but soon this idiocy will be commonplace and each of us will be scandalized when we hear our neighbor was not properly certified—by experts!—in child watching.

The reason we have come to this ridiculous state is obvious. Our government started with only a few men. But, roughly, for each idea these men had, an employee was needed. These employees themselves had ideas—created with love and caring—and those ideas needed more bodies, and so on. Even if at our beginning our leaders were the best and brightest, we need only remember that intelligence is not awarded evenly, and that as government grows the average intelligence of its employees must shrink. Therefore, the larger the government, the larger its proportion of the less able, the below average, and the downright stupid. At some point, a negative feedback kicks in with a vengeance, and we resemble the snowball barreling down the hill, crushing all in its path, with nothing being able to stop it.

26 Comments

  1. I think you need to review Tocqueville’s “Democracy In America”.

  2. It’s all for the children you know. They will grow up not missing what they never knew. Never having learned to cope they will run to Big Mommy for help at every turn knowing Big Mommy cares. So your unchildish attitude, Briggs, is just plain wrong. I’m telling! Mom!

  3. A similar case came up a few days ago here in the UK – two police officers had a mutual childminding agreement, which was deemed to constitute running an illegal babysitting racket:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8278189.stm

    Luckily it looks like it will be resolved soon though…

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8277378.stm

    Still, scary stuff.

    The headlines in the “see also” lists on the right hand side of those pages make interesting reading too, as a summary of the contradictory idiocy currently surrounding child care, paedophilia, and “working” families.

  4. Government Systems, acting in accordance with the laws of growth, Tend to Expand and Encroach. In encroaching upon their own citizens, they produce Tyranny, and encroaching upon other Government Systems, they engage in Warfare.—John Gall, Systemantics

    Just as the sole countervailing influence to international aggression is the vigilance of a superior power, the sole countervailing force to the dynamic of government growth is the prospect of a successful armed revolt. — Me.

  5. When C. Northcote Parkinson wrote, “Parkinson’s Law”, he began with figures for the Admiralty and the Navy which showed the numbers increasing in the first as they declined in the second. In today’s paper (UK) I noticed the headline, “One MOD employee for every two soldiers”.

    And just yesterday I began reading “Brittannia Prima” by Roger White which has an illusration depicting the enormous bureaucracy needed – apparently – to run a small Roman province.

    Nothing changes but does that cause us hope or despair?

  6. Sorry Rich, Parkinson was a civil servant (bureaucrat) with the British Colonial Office. His brilliant essay and all that followed was based upon his experience observing exponential increases in employment and budgets during the post WWII era while England systematically lost all of its colonies. You can easily learn about Parkinson and read his essays by a Google search for “Parkinsons law”.

    Other than that the point you make is spot on.

  7. Briggs

    September 28, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Rich,

    From what I read in Standpoint, they’re looking to turn that figure from “1 to 2” to “1 to a fraction” or even “1 to 0”.

    Francis,

    Thanks. Very interesting website you have, too. Hope to see more of you.

    George, DAV, Paddy, Stan,

    Thanks for the links and clarifications everybody.

    Wade, we might get to it. It’s been done many times, but it never grows old.

  8. “How does such software survive? It cannot, unless it is a monopoly, unless all are forced to use it because it is the only option. Then the sluggish, brute package becomes commonplace, people adapt and they stop questioning their needless toils.”

    Hmm, sounds like SAS!

  9. Mr Briggs, a post at Climate Audit demands your attention and comment…

    “The second image below is, in my opinion, one of the most disquieting images ever presented at Climate Audit….”

    http://www.climateaudit.org/?p=7168

  10. Nice analogy.

    Monopoly or not, barnacle covered software survives through inertia. Those who produce the software see too much trouble for too little gain in cleaning it up by rewriting it. The users are completely unaware of the mess behind the facade. As long as people can just use it, and the owners can just profit from it, no one has an incentive to fix it. Inertia, however, will insure the situation deteriorates well beyond this point.

    A book that can make a person weary of bureaucracy by simply reading it is Milovan Djilas’ “the New Class”. Djilas learned a thing or two about bureaucracy and bureaucrats from his time as Vice President of Yugoslavia under Tito. A growing bureaucracy guarantees the eventual failure of communism, and probably socialism too in any form.

  11. Interesting.

    I’ve just tried to post a comment on this thread, but WordPress will not display it. If I retype it WordPress sees it as a duplicate. This day is off to a poor start.

  12. Briggs

    September 29, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Kevin,

    Sorry about that. No idea why this was called spam. I’ve fixed it.

  13. Bad software survives only if it is a monopoly. I disagree entirely.

    While monopoly is the natural state for software, (The cost of the first installation of a piece of software is sevaral million dollars; the cost of the second installation is trival by comparison) bad software survives because the cost of moving from bad software to better software is greater than the benfit of better software. A user will tollerate software bloat so long as processing power is growing at least as quickly.

    If software can bloat is reign in by good design, control of scope and has an uperbound associated with the growt of processing power, how is bloat controlled in other venues.

    In the corporate world, bureaucratic bloat is held down by “strategy” and cost control. Bureaucracy still grows as long as there is revenue growth and sufficiently fat margins. When margins get squeezed, the company goes through re-organization and downsizing.

    What is the check on Govenrment growth? Productivity growth provided the upper bound over “the long term.” As long as DPI (disposible personal income) grows, no one complains too loudly. When income falters, most governments increase the pork. That is, when the bureaucratic bloat becomes cripling, the Gov’mint increases the size of the beast. This will get them through a soft patch of limited duration, but makes the crisis worse if the situation does not stabalize of it own accord.

  14. “At some point, a negative feedback kicks in with a vengeance…”

    I think you mean positive feedback. The bigger the snowball the faster it adds mass.

  15. While most of us are probably aware that you can’t really prove things with anecdotal evidence from a soap box, yet we’re totally swayed by it anyway. The post may not be nonsense. The idea may be correct. However, this is just another rant from you: one-sided, with no suggestion about how to change government for the better. It’s safe to assume that Mr. Rant is a regular guest in your house. Are you growing into a grumpy old man? Can you offer any antidotes?

  16. Briggs

    September 29, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Mike44,

    Well, negative, if your utilities of crushing snowballs are negative.

    Candy,

    Excellent point! Not only do I have no antidotes, but I claim (it is very likely) there are none. Doug M’s extension of the analogy is apt: moving from the present system appears (probably only appears) too costly. So we’re stuck with it until it craps out. Until something else eventually takes over. Carping from the sidelines slows the process, as do the occasional non-insane politician. But the general trend is down, down, down.

    P.S. Candy — no willing photographers yet found, and the ice is on its way!

  17. Doug,

    It’s interesting to note that bad times play out rather differently in different systems. In Japan, the bureaucracy further entrenched itself and has either remained in a steady state or grown, even as two decades of rough economy rolled past.

    California, on the other hand, has actually fired people. Not many, but I know that the DMV has downsized. Whether or not that will have any effect on lines at the CA DMV remains to be seen, but I’ll bet you that it remains a pretty rotten place to spend the afternoon.

    Matt,

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Alas, it’s sometimes hard to figure out who the tyrants and the patriots are. Perhaps that’s why Jefferson figured it was best to simply not differentiate? (TONGUE-IN-CHEEK)

  18. Actually, the combination of software and government bureaucracies is addressed nicely by Dr. Anthony Berglas in “Why it is Important that Software Projects Fail.” http://www.berglas.org/Articles/ImportantThatSoftwareFails/ImportantThatSoftwareFails.html
    Berglas argues that for every successful SW project that yields real productivity improvement, the bureaucracy that benefits simply and natually (according to Parkinson) seeks out and conquers more aspects of every day life to regulate and control.
    Viva Bugs!

  19. Go to Belmont Club and look at the post “Second Derivative.”

  20. Well, this goes to show what I’ve been saying for years…. 99 out of 100 times when someone says “There ought to be a law about…”, they are wrong. If this isn’t already an well-accepted phrase, we can call it North’s Maxim.

    The other big problem is that somewhere along the line we started calling our representatives and senators “lawmakers” and they started thinking that they weren’t doing their job if they weren’t making and passing laws on just about everything

    Bob

  21. I’ve toyed with the idea that every statuary law should have a time limit. My rationale for this is that the reasonable laws will be quickly reinacted when about to expire, the bad ones would die on the vine.

  22. Briggs

    October 2, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Alan,

    I’ve had that thought, too. But I’d guess they’d quickly institute a rule—like they have now for Congressional pay raises etc.—whereby every law automatically resurrects unless specifically voted down. And we’d be right back to where we are.

  23. No one ever seems to run for for office to remove laws, its always an additive gesture.
    Outside of the bureaucracy, on the political end, government gets more meddling and bloated via legacy building. Everyone wants to be remembered for something, and those somethings as irrational as they are, are always spun into positives for society.

  24. Briggs

    October 12, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Max,

    I wonder is this is true. It would make a fascinating history. Well, Reagan sort of ran this way, did he not. “Government is not the solution. It is the problem” speech and so on?

  25. Yes when it comes to problems, they need a problem to justify taxation. Taxes always come as government only and first solution. The taxes are for internal problem solving not for the reason given to the public.

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