Thursday, July 3, 2008

Liberalism: The Ship that Does Not Sail

The Mugwumps and Progressives emphasized management issues and execution of programs. Herbert Croly, for instance, discussed scientific management and work restructuring in his 1912 Progressive Democracy. In the late nineteenth century EL Godkin discussed the role of incentives in managing railroads. The Muckrakers discussed management problems and Ida Tarbell, as much as she contemned John D. Rockefeller, favorably discussed his management abilities. In contrast, the post World War II liberals rarely discuss management or execution of programs. Their emphasis is on program advocacy not implementation. The reason may be that in implementing the New Deal, which in part relied on partnership between state and federal government, FDR overlaid federal programs like unemployment insurance on state governments that were often corrupt. The New Deal did not attempt to reform government as Progressivism had (and often failed to do) but rather added broad federal policies to an already corrupt system. This policy of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil seems to have been transmitted to subsequent generations of social democrats. Yet, the problem of execution and management is not independent of programs themselves. A social security program that is not well-designed is no better and may be worse than none at all. A welfare system that motivates beneficiaries to become dependent and that motivates despondency and drug addiction may be worse than no welfare program at all. An urban renewal program that creates ugly and alienating city projects that stimulate crime and roads that destroy neighborhoods may be worse than no urban renewal program at all. Government programs that generate high costs and few benefits, that drive out business because of high taxes and yet fail to accomplish their goals are worse than no programs. Management and execution are as much a component of programming as policy ideas. Yet, how often do proponents of new programs discuss management and execution issues? Very infrequently.

According to the French industrial Fayol, management is comprised of five tasks: planning, leading, organizing, coordinating, and controlling. This model was updated in the mid twentieth century by Edward I. Deming who argued that management is the reduction in variability of an output. The Deming interpretation of management is related to that of Taiichi Ohno, Toyota's production guru who created the ideas of lean manufacturing. Ohno argued that management is the elimination of waste. In any management system there needs to be a picture of what is going to be accomplished, a process that is required to achieve that goal, and a means of controlling the process so that it remains focused. The selection of the appropriate technique is not easy and it is not incidental. It cannot be accomplished by just anyone. A political appointee appointed along party or personal loyalty lines is not likely to be able to accomplish the managerial task as well as someone who has spent a lifetime thinking about production problems. An employee who has spent a lifetime focused on a certain process or kind of problem is likely to be best equipped to implement a quality program IF the employee understands the management techniques necessary to do a good job. Without taking such considerations into account, government programs are likely to be wasteful. Without controls, there is little likelihood that they will accomplish the objectives their advocates set out for them. If liberals build a ship that cannot sail, they cannot be said to have accomplished much. When the ship sinks, have they done more good than harm? Yet, social democrats advocate programs without thinking about process or about evaluation methods.

There are a number of natural blockages to the management of government programs. First, the cost of losses is not born by any concentrated interest. Because the costs are diffused, there is limited motivation by managers to reveal losses. Managers who reveal losses risk losing their jobs, but the public is not likely to feel the costs of the losses because they are spread over the entire tax paying population. Second, there are incentives for suppliers to cheat, to exaggerate the need for their products or to overcharge. Third, the customer base is captive. Because government enjoys a monopoly, those who use its services have nowhere else to go. Fourth, there is ideological resistance to criticism of government failure and waste by social democrats. Therefore, critics are likely to be humiliated. Fifth, even if public managers do radically improve programs, they are not necessarily rewarded for doing so. Sixth, waste may create patronage opportunities for politicians who in turn are likely to harass or fire government employees who resist it. Seventh, experts and specialists in government may be self-seeking and so not be motivated to improve programs.

Politics in America became largely a debate between two groups that advocate expansion of government: the Progressives, who are Republican in party and who advocate efficiency and effectiveness in government, and the social democrats (who also call themselves liberals and progressives) who do not. But it is not clear that Americans favor expansion of the state, whether it be the social democratic welfare state or the managerial state of progressivism. Moreover, the ideas that progressivism offers with respect to rationalization of the state do not, and likely cannot, reflect the state of the art with respect to management. Hence, Americans are given the choice between the second-rate services that the Progressives have on offer and the incompetence and chaos that the social democrats and their friends in the media gleefully advocate.

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