The Government Hard-Drive Needs Defragging

I recently had to break down and buy a new laptop. It’s not that my old one was completely broken. In fact, at only four years old there’s still quite a bit of life left in the tank. But after three years of pretty rigorous use it just wasn’t as fast as it used to be. Years of downloads, uploads, updates, and new programs my computer’s hard drive is so bogged down with junk that it was time for a new one.

In a way, my old computer is much like the current state of our federal government. It has been added to, subtracted from, amended, and appended so many times that it no longer perfoms the few things it was actually intended to do very well.

Atlantic author James Fallows explores the issue in an essay outlining how America can get back to greatness.

Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,” and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern “demosclerosis,” in a book of that name. He defined the problem as “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,” a process “like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.”

Unfortunately, Fallows then pushes into dangerous territory – urging the wholesale elimination of the Senate, among other things.

Government reform is no doubt the answer, but there is a much less revolutionary answer than making substantial changes to our constitution. What we need, in sticking with the computer metaphor, is to “defrag” the Washington hard-drive.

For those unfamiliar with defragmentation, it is exactly what it sounds like – a process that physically reorganizes the contents of your hard drive to store files in contiguous places. In short, it takes the jumbled up mess that you’ve made of your computer over the years and does its best to clean it up and make some sense out of it.

That’s exactly what our federal government needs.

Over the years interest groups have succeeded in carving out numerous exemptions and subsidies that make legislation incredibly complicated.The “green” energy gambles of the Obama Administration are one of the clearest examples – providing billions of dollars in incentives and favorable legislation that dramatically tilt the energy playing field.

Our tax code has been changed so many times and contains so many carve-outs that it’s nearly impossible to decipher. The latest research finds that our 3.8 million-word tax code takes 7.64 billion hours to comply with in a given year – the equivalent of 3.82 million full-time workers.

Moreover, the government bureaucracy has grown to such an extent that there are usually dozens of overlapping programs trying to accomplish the same goal. For instance, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently found that there are 18 programs spanning three agencies handling domestic food assistance, 20 programs in seven agencies dealing with homelessness, and 47 programs done by nine agencies focused on job training.

“Overlap and fragmentation among government programs or activities can be harbingers of unnecessary duplication.  Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services,” the GAO concluded.

None of this makes any fiscal sense. And yet it will continue to grow.

Current thinking among politicians is that they must always be actively creating some new program as a handout to their constituents. It’s always easier to sell something new, that you can put your fingerprints on, than to peddle an already-existing program. The result is consistent growth in the size of government, but no real progress towards solving any problems.

That’s why we need wholesale change. We need a line-by-line, program-by-program defrag to get rid of the waste, duplication, and inefficiencies that are holding us back and costing us money. Unlike a computer, we just can’t go out and buy another government, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for one that isn’t working as it was meant to.