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Monday, March 06, 2006

Ideology and Competence

I’ve written extensively here on what I hope becomes a bipartisan meme: that whatever size government we choose to create, and whatever we choose to ask it to do, we should demand, expect and enable it to do well. Incompetence is simply not an option in either a conservative or a liberal government.

I’ve also written about the fact that certain tenets of modern conservatism are self-defeating -- specifically, people who fundamentally believe that government by its very nature is hopelessly inept and fails miserably at everything it tries to do tend to be very bad at governing, since they do not expect themselves or others to succeed. A government run by self-fulfilling prophets of doom is very likely to fumble the ball when it comes, say, to organizing an adequate response to a major hurricane, maintaining civil order and enacting a swift return to local control when occupying another country after a war, or balancing a budget.

In that regard, it’s fun and reassuring to see that
conservatives themselves are starting to recognize
this administration’s fundamental incompetence (though they have not yet realized that their own philosophy is at least partly to blame).

Still, I have to say, no conservatives have put it as eloquently as -- ahem -- I have:

Under the current administration, the government succeeds at almost nothing it sets out to do. It spends money like a drunken 1970s Democrat, embraces global imperialism and foreign wars with the misplaced enthusiasm of a William Randolph Hearst, prostitutes itself to donors and lobbyists with the promiscuity of Ulysses Grant, and does less for the average American than Cal Coolidge. It has done almost nothing skilfully except gain office.

Or here:

[C]ontrary to the ideologies of both liberals and conservatives, the Bush administration is giving us government that is functionally incompetent and fiscally incontinent. It's the worst of all possible worlds.

I also wrote on this topic here.

So what SHOULD we expect from our government? I discussed it at length in one of my first NeoProgBlog posts, which I’ll excerpt at length below to close out this post:

7. What Government Does, It Should Do Well – Which Imposes Obligations On We Citizens To Help It Do So.

We can debate what it is we want our government to do, but we should all agree that what it does, it should do well.

This seems like a facile proposition, but it has important ramifications. There is a direct connection between a government’s ideology and its effectiveness. When the government is run by people who ideologically are opposed to government action and who doubt the government’s ability to act competently, then any action it does take will be slow, hesitant, incomplete and inadequate. Hurricane Katrina showed this kind of government at its worst. There is a direct connection between the ideology that wants to suppress the federal government in favor of states rights and personal responsibility, and Michael Brown’s Congressional testimony blaming Louisiana and its citizens for the failures of FEMA.

We should have made up our minds. If FEMA was not going to act, it should have said so early and loudly, so that the states and their citizens knew what to expect. If FEMA was going to act, it should have done so rapidly and effectively. The tepid compromise that actually occurred cost lives, hurt our nation’s morale, and undermined our faith in our government – which means it undermined our faith in ourselves. The Neoprogressive assertion that there are proper times and places for government involvement in the civil affairs of our nation carries with it the assertion that, when the government acts, it should do so boldly and well. A Neoprogressive FEMA would have stepped up to the plate and gotten the job done.

However, our expectation that our government work well obligates we citizens to help it do so. First, we must insist that government agencies be staffed by people who believe in the mission of those agencies, not (as is often the case) by people who, prior to taking office, lobbied against the very agencies they now head. There is no place, in a Neoprogressive nation, for a Michael Brown, overseeing the hobbling of FEMA, or a John Bolton, recess-appointed ambassador to an organization he believes should not even exist. Effective government cannot be accomplished by people who question the legitimacy of the very agencies we citizens have hired them to administer.

Practically, this means that we must continually lobby our President to appoint competent and committed administrators, and we must support the right and obligation of the Senate to exercise oversight over Presidential appointees. As James Madison made clear, the Senate’s right of advice and consent and the minority’s right of filibuster exist, not to frustrate the President’s right to choose his executives, or to allow the minority party to unfairly advance an ideology that failed at the polls, but to shine sufficient light on the President’s choices that he will be embarrassed to appoint anyone who is not competent and committed to the task. Neoprogressives should refuse to be drawn into debates over party ideology in executive agency appointments, but focus on competency. We should make ourselves aware of these obscure appointments, and write our editors and Senators to register our opinions about them. We should act like employers conducting a job interview -- which is what we are.

Second: if we ask our government to undertake a job, we should give it the tools to accomplish that job. No National Guardsman should have been deployed to Iraq with Vietnam-era body armor. No teacher should have to buy classroom supplies from her own paycheck. To ask government to act, then inadequately fund it, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that government is incompetent. It betrays our citizens, it betrays the soldiers, sailors, teachers, and others who work on our behalf, and it betrays our integrity.


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