“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

— President James Madison

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

— Thomas Paine

“How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?”

— Charles de Gaulle

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

— Milton Friedman

“The worst thing in this world, next to anarchy, is government.”

— Henry Ward Beecher

“The worst evils which mankind has ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments.”

— Ludwig von Mises

“Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government.”

— George Washington

“We have the best government that money can buy.”

— Mark Twain

“The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.”

— Milton Friedman

Roughly 18% of the U.S. workforce is employed in federal, state, or local governments, nearly 30 million people. About half the country thinks that’s too many while the other half thinks that’s too few. Yet, government as a percentage of population has been decreasing for 50 years. Why do we need (so much) government anyway? Turns out that government size is not the problem.

In most countries today, government is omnipresent. This seems odd since government is very costly, prone to making huge mistakes, and has gained a largely unsavory reputation that is well-earned. Yet, people living in groups have had governments of one flavor or another since groups (including tribes) were invented.

We might conclude that governments are a necessary and unavoidable part of  group functioning. We cannot seem to exist, except perhaps briefly, without some form of government. Why is this?

The problem of the government is us, the governed

For all practical purposes, government has existed as long as people have lived in groups. Essentially, forever. If government has survived – essentially forever – as well, it must have a very basic and important role. It may well be part of our human nature in fact.

That’s a scary thought, yes?

If valid, it means that we actually cannot exist without some level of government. Only if there are no people around can government not be present. No people around kind of settles the matter so far as I can see.

However, absent a really messy nuclear World War III, people will always be around somewhere, and probably almost everywhere. Humanity has a real talent for survival. And growth – from (a wild guess of) between 1 and 10 million about 10,000 years ago – has very recently passed the 8 billion mark. How’s that for survival success!

So, why did the need for government evolve as part of human evolution?

Britannica has what appears to be a credible explanation:

“So long as humans were few, there was hardly any government. The division of function between ruler and ruled occurred only, if at all, within the family. The largest social groups, whether tribes or villages, were little more than loose associations of families, in which every elder or family head had an equal voice. Chieftains, if any, had strictly limited powers; some tribes did without chieftains altogether. This pre-political form of social organization may still be found in some regions of the world, such as the Amazonian jungle in South America or the upper Nile River valley in Africa.”

“The rise of agriculture began to change that state of affairs. In the land of Sumer (in what is now Iraq) the invention of irrigation necessitated grander arrangements. Control of the flow of water down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had to be coordinated by a central authority, so that fields could be watered downstream as well as farther up. It became necessary also to devise a calendar, so as to know when the spring floods might be expected. As those skills evolved, society evolved with them.”

“Unfortunately—but, given human nature, inevitably—the young cities of Sumer quarreled over the distribution of the rivers’ water, and their wealth excited the greed of nomads outside the still comparatively small area of civilization (a word deriving from the Latin word for city, civitas).”

Wikipedia provides a rough timeline of this evolution:

“By the time of the Uruk period (c. 4100–2900 BC calibrated), the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities (with populations of over 10,000 people) where centralized administrations [emphasis added] employed specialized workers.”

This suggests that governments (“centralized administrations”) were active in Sumer, and probably elsewhere as well, more than 6,000 years ago. At least. Lots of time after that for governments to become fully integrated with evolving human nature and its social organization.

If governments are part of us, then government problems are from us.

Behind this government org chart are millions upon millions of workers.
Behind this government org chart are millions upon millions of workers.

If government is an integral part of us, how much do we need?

Well, we have some thousands of years of experience to guide us in how big a government-as-part-of-us seems to be required. What about the U.S., which has had around 250 years to determine an appropriate size?

Kristin Tate writing in The Hill in 2019 outlines its current size: “The sheer size of our government workforce is an alarming problem”:

“The federal government employs nearly 9.1 million workers, comprising nearly 6 percent of total employment in the United States. The figure includes nearly 2.1 million federal employees, 4.1 million contract employees, 1.2 million grant employees, 1.3 million active duty military personnel, and more than 500,000 postal service employees.”

“When you factor in state and local governments, which together employ [roughly 19] million workers, the entire government workforce as a share of total employment in the nation sits at more than 18 percent [28.4 million of the 157.5 million employed workforce].”

This works out to about one government worker for every five people in a population like ours. We have a very complex society that operates globally, so maybe 20% is an effective upper limit. What do “we the people” think?

Fiona Hill of the DC-based Brookings Institution provides a summary of public opinion on this matter: “Public service and the federal government

“Contrary to popular belief in the bloated growth of the U.S. public sector, the size of the federal government proportionate to the total U.S. population has significantly decreased over the last 50 years. It has also shrunk in absolute numbers in terms of both the full-time and part-time workforce. If we compare the size of the U.S. public sector as a percentage of the total workforce with other advanced countries, the U.S. is often smaller than its European counterparts, including the United Kingdom, although larger than Japan, which has one of the smallest public sectors internationally.”

“The U.S. population has been evenly split for several years in its views on the optimal size of the U.S. government—with 47% of those polled by Pew in 2019 seeing government as either too big or too small.”

Great. Roughly half think we need more government and the same percentage think we need less government. Probably split pretty much along major political lines. It seems pretty hard to respond to both at the same time, and probably impossible to respond to either one effectively. So, everybody is likely to remain unhappy.

Government size today is roughly about “right”

About “right” simply means that it is as large as the population can afford and will accept. It would get bigger if it could, but at the moment, it cannot and in fact is shrinking (so they say). The reduction in apparent size, however, may be due to automation of many routine government functions.

The natural tendency of most organizations is to grow until some serious limit is reached. Bigger is better to those inside; not so much to those who pay for it. In any case, given enough time, government size roughly stabilizes into a rough equilibrium. We are clearly at this state today. Absent a government-only plague of some sort, government size relative to population is about “right”.

“Right” in this case does not imply effectiveness or much of anything positive. It simply means that its natural tendency to grow is balanced by the society’s ability and willingness to pay for it.

The Gallup organization, which has been polling and analyzing worldwide since 1935, has an interesting and quite detailed look at satisfaction with government in the U.S.. Extracts from two tables that seem especially relevant here are shown below.

Source: Gallup.
Source: Gallup.

The “system of government and how well it works” question shows that, in 2022, 30% are very or somewhat satisfied, while 71% are very or somewhat dissatisfied”. The extra 1% may be due to rounding, or perhaps simply reflects common voting practices.

The “way the nation is being governed” question shows that, in 2021, 30% are satisfied, while 69% are dissatisfied”. This question confirms the first one since it really asks the same thing in two somewhat different ways.

These results show that a very solid majority thinks that government is generally performing poorly even though half the people think the answer is more government while the other half thinks we need less government.

Translation: Our government as a whole is performing poorly and changing its size will not solve the performance problem.

Problems with organizational performance lie entirely with the leadership

Leaders, I read somewhere, are supposed to lead and, through subordinates, to manage. Problems are fundamentally leadership problems. At the top.

So, it will come as no surprise to almost everybody that a government’s crappy performance reflects crappy (or worse) leadership. A leader’s job is to make sure that the organization performs its designed function effectively so that its “customers” are largely satisfied.

Asking “customers”, aka non-leaders, whether the top people are doing a good job is likely to give you a party-dependent answer. Politics matter, as you would expect, but is kind of a non-answer for performance improvement purposes.

Today, government leadership performance at the top is generally dismal or worse. Why is this?

Well, of course, it is due mainly to our top leaders being politicians, not real leaders. They tend to make up for this serious deficiency by appointing under them people who won’t make them look bad, or be in any respect disagreeable. Thus ensuring that subordinate levels are led or managed by even less capable (performance-wise) folks.

The real capabilities in government so far as I can see reside deeply buried in most units. These invisible people are probably the only reason that anything useful ever gets done. Promotions are mostly based on politics, ensuring that those promoted are better politicians than performers, as they float up to the surface, speaking pond-wise.

But, as you are aware, it gets worse. Much worse. The reason is “corruption”, which is better known as an important part of human nature. Almost everybody is corrupt or corruptible to some degree. The great blessing here is that this human weakness is suppressed, individually or collegially, in the majority. Most of us are fundamentally nice and are not easily corrupted.

If one makes a great leap and considers “corruption” as being characteristic of sociopathic or psychopathic personalities, then research indicates that 4% of the adult population are sociopaths and 1% are psychopaths. But, just to confuse things, some 5% to 15% are “almost psychopaths”. So, for purposes here, it seems that up to 10% of the population might fall into one of these categories. That is, they may be more likely than the main population to be corruptible or corrupted.

The point here, in case you were wondering, is that there are very many people out there who are potentially corruptible. Since leadership and many management positions are filled based more-or-less heavily on “political” concerns, this suggests that senior positions almost everywhere, but particularly in government, have a higher percentage of the potentially-corruptible.

In my experience at least, this seems very reasonable, and possibly quite a bit too conservative.

Government leadership and management problems arise from corruption?

Not entirely of course, but being corruptible or already corrupted, and being presented with the myriad opportunities for mischief available to senior people in government, suggests that this is not an unreasonable proposition. Power and prestige attracts money, and particularly those who value money more highly than most social concerns. Sociopathic (or worse).

Doug Casey writing in The Burning Platform sure thinks so: “Is The State Necessary?”:

“The violent and corrupt nature of government is widely acknowledged by almost everyone. That’s been true since time immemorial, as have political satire and grousing about politicians. Yet almost everyone turns a blind eye; most not only put up with it, but actively support the charade. That’s because, although many may believe government to be an evil, they believe it is a necessary evil (the larger question of whether anything that is evil is necessary, or whether anything that is necessary can be evil, is worth discussing, but this isn’t the forum).”

“What (arguably) makes government necessary is the need for protection from other, even more dangerous, governments. I believe a case can be made that modern technology obviates this function.”

To understand this tirade correctly, we need to replace the term “government” with “government leaders”, which of course are almost entirely different. Operationally, then, “we” need to fix government leadership and management. As they say, good luck with that.

The leadership and management problem, as suggested above, is inherent in human nature and its natural processes. Neither are fixable to any serious degree. If you have a bunch of people around, you are going to have a bunch of low-performing leaders and managers among them. That’s just how it is, despite the beliefs and pocketbooks of hordes of consultants.

If we can’t fix government, whatever shall we do?

Well, we can complain about it, just as we do with the (currently at least) unfixable weather. With respect to weather nastiness, we mostly just learn to live with it. This is just how the world seems to work.

So, should we just give up on trying to fix government, and simply try our best to live with it as it is, warts and all?

Don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to respond with a somewhat different approach. You might call this a “fixing how we live with it” approach that focuses largely or entirely on us, the governed.

You might think of this as being confined to life next to an alligator swamp. Not meaning to insult alligators, of course, which are necessary ecosystem creatures.

Author Jim Kunstler in The Burning Platform, a site that I value for its great range of outrageous opinions and thoughts, seems to get at exactly this approach: “Some Lights Go Out, Some Lights Go On”:

“The macro trend is quite clear, as laid out in [his book] The Long Emergency: what’s coming is the opposite of global government; rather, national governments become increasingly impotent and illegitimate, and smaller regions by necessity must retreat into autarky to keep anything going. For us that means Washington DC sinks into irrelevance while the states, or perhaps mere parts of the states, have to take charge of their own affairs.”

Umm … in case you, like myself, have no idea what “autarky” might be (apart from maybe some new pandemic disease), here is what Wikipedia offers:

“Autarky is the characteristic of self-sufficiency, usually applied to societies, communities, states, and their economic systems.”

A special kind of self-sufficiency may be part of the answer

Self-sufficiency – applied to small subsets of the greater population and its constituent organizations – seems as if it might point in a productive direction. I have referred to this as “tribalism” – geographically-dispersed, common-interest, communities – in a number of posts.

This does not mean decentralization or breaking up of states and their organizations. To me, this means creating subsets of like-minded individuals within existing states, organizations, and the like, for the purpose of addressing one or more aspects of a currently malfunctioning government. The benefits may flow mostly to participants, but not necessarily. Their goal is simply to fix what’s wrong as best they can, while keeping the scope small enough to be manageable.

Note that this is not the same as prepping or survivalism, which focuses on a small group of individuals and enables them to survive various flavors of disasters and catastrophes. What I am thinking of here is more like a type of activist – constructive, positive, and creative – rather than the commonly disruptive, and even destructive, activists often of ill-repute. From Wikipedia:

“Activism (or Advocacy) consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct or intervene in social, political, economic or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society toward a perceived greater good. Forms of activism range from mandate building in a community (including writing letters to newspapers), petitioning elected officials, running or contributing to a political campaign, preferential patronage (or boycott) of businesses, and demonstrative forms of activism like rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, or hunger strikes.”

Activists in this sense are common-cause associations, informal, and dynamic. These may form around a visionary, a strong leader, or a small group of individuals seeking to influence a problematic situation. Such groups may be transient if they are addressing a short-term situation. Participants may change regularly, as may the leadership. Objectives and actions would be dynamically determined based on what the group learns as it operates.

Noisy activism, by nurses yet.
Noisy activism, by nurses yet.

Who are some examples of effective activists? How about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Florence Nightingale. There are hundreds and probably thousands more, mostly unknown. These stellar examples tackled huge obstacles in various aspects of life. A few examples from a very long list:

Martin Luther King, Jr. — advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience.

Harriet Tubman — prominent political activist and abolitionist was also the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the American Civil War.

Susan B. Anthony — played a vital role in the women’s suffrage movement.

Helen Keller — a blind activist who campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism and other such causes.

Erin Brockovich — legal consultant, environmental activist, and consumer activist.

W. E. B. Du Bois — an American civil rights activist, sociologist, and Pan-Africanist.

While these individuals are stellar in their effectiveness, they appear for the most part to be quite ordinary people. What turns such ordinary people into great activists? Probably some combination, or perhaps all, of these:

  • A clear vision of what they want to accomplish
  • Great courage and personal integrity
  • A special ability to communicate their vision and to inspire others
  • Tremendous perseverance
  • Ability to lead by example
  • Resilience and an ability to overcome obstacles
  • Exceptional creativeness in terms of approaches and messages

You can probably add quite a few more qualities to this top-of-the-head list, but these should give you some idea of what I think it takes to succeed as an activist.

Staying below the radar, and my personal mini-activism

I must admit to being the least likely and least capable activist-type person. My preference is to work pretty much on my own and to avoid becoming too visible. I must also admit to failing in these quite regularly.

I worked some years ago with a real, highly-effective activist to keep the phone company from cluttering our local mountaintop with all kinds of communication towers. The approach she used was to photograph every likely peak in the State – around 50 as I recall – to see what if any communications equipment might be installed. She found that every site except ours had become a telecom forest. This shifted the focus to our town, which generated a whole new set of issues: a very old fire-lookout tower that could actually be fitted with telecom gear. Fighting against this required removal of the tower, which she managed to get done after much effort. The “activist team”: this lady and myself. Not sure that I added much but I definitely learned a lot about how government at state and town levels works with major telecom providers.

In another instance, the town decided to renumber all of the houses in town based on the claim that the fire department, police, and ambulance services could not locate many addresses (mostly on rural post boxes). I led the effort against this, with a few locals chipping in where they could. We first determined that the fire, police, and ambulance folks actually didn’t have any problem locating addresses. Instead, one of their leaders decided to push this fantasy on his own, and he used his considerable influence to get the others on board. To make a long story short, we won this one after two years of effort. But only temporarily. A few months after we moved away from the town, the town officials pushed through a (still completely unnecessary) house renumbering effort.

Bottom line:

People, pretty much everywhere, feel that government at most levels isn’t performing effectively. In the U.S, federal, state, and local governments employ almost 20% of the total workforce. Half the country thinks that’s too many, and half thinks that’s too few – yet government as a percentage of population has been decreasing for 50 years. Turns out that government size is not the problem. We probably have about the right size of government. The performance problem is government leadership and top managers. You can’t fix that problem because it is rooted in human nature. Activism may be the only workable approach.

Related Reading

“In his Nobel acceptance speech [Sir John Boyd Orr, a Scottish doctor and politician, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949], he said, ‘We are now physically, politically, and economically one world… The absolute national sovereignty of nations is no longer possible. However difficult it may be to bring it about, some form of world government, with agreed international law and means of enforcing the law, is inevitable.’”

“In 1950, James Paul Warburg, chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations, told a subcommittee of the United States Senate, ‘We shall have world government, whether or not we like it. The question is only whether world government will be achieved by consent or by conquest.’”

“Microsoft’s billionaire founder Bill Gates said he was disappointed that the Copenhagen conference failed in its goal to set up a world government. In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s Munich-based national daily newspaper, Gates said:”

“We have global problems and urgent needs. But the way we manage the world isn’t super-efficient. Advantages and disadvantages are distributed unfairly… We always have army divisions ready to fight a war. But what about fighting disease? How many doctors do we have? How many planes, tents, scientists? If there were such a thing as a world government, we would be better prepared [to fight disease outbreaks].”

“Even the Catholic Church is involved in the effort to impose a global government on the world. In 2011, the Vatican cardinals issued a document calling for a ‘world Authority’ (with a capital A) to impose controls on the global economy. The Vatican said:”

“It is the task of today’s generation to recognize and consciously to accept these new world dynamics for the achievement of a universal common good. Of course, this transformation will be made at the cost of a gradual, balanced transfer of a part of each nation’s powers to a world Authority… This development will not come about without anguish and suffering… Only a spirit of concord that rises above divisions and conflicts will allow humanity to be authentically one family and to conceive of a new world with the creation of a world public Authority at the service of the common good.”

“What none of these proponents of a one-world government seems to consider, much less have an answer for, is this question: How do we make sure this “world Authority” rules wisely and benevolently? These yearning utopians make an unthinking assumption that their world government will be run by people of goodwill. But history shows that big governments tend to produce either clumsily inefficient bureaucracies or ruthlessly oppressive dictatorships.”

  • And last but not least, from my favorite proponent of civil disobedience activism:

“For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

“I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—”That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

“Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

“It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

“It is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

Bad government, it seems, is a fact of life everywhere and always.
Bad government, it seems, is a fact of life everywhere and always.