Is Bigger Always Better? A Cautionary Tale of Bureaucracies and Socialism | Opinion

In what may be the most under-reported poll in memory, Gallup asked Americans in 2017 what they considered the bigger threat to their country: big government, big business or big labor. Sixty seven percent chose big government, nearly a record high in the 50 years Gallup has been asking the question.

It wasn't surprising to learn 81 percent of Republicans chose big government. But 67 percent of independents and 51 percent of Democrats agreed.

So the question arises: How do we use a poll like that to litigate the case against democratic socialism? After all, if most of us think big government is America's biggest threat, why make it bigger?

To make the case, we should tell the story of bureaucracies, because we all know their soul-crushing nature. Many of us have experienced it firsthand, working either in a large company held hostage by its own senseless rules and enforcers, or in a government bureaucracy.

Start with a story like Mark's. His hot dog truck was located in Bergenfield, New Jersey, in a parking lot behind the main drag in town. His customers lined up for decades because Mark made great dogs and great toppings.

Mark succeeded because he was close to his customers. He knew their names and their preferences. But if Mark decided to expand to 10 trucks, that's where things could go wrong. Because as businesses grow, so does an organism called management. And as managerial bureaucracies grow, they become defensive, worrying less about innovating and more about not making mistakes. More about protecting their own turf.

"So much of what we call management," legendary management consultant and author Peter Drucker explained, "consists of making it difficult for people to work." Drucker was right. It's what bureaucracies too often do. They make it harder for us to work.

"The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer," Drucker also said. But as enterprises grow, the result is all too often the exact opposite: The purpose of the customer is to serve the bureaucracy.

We should also tell the story of small vs. big, because small so often beats big precisely because of the nature of bureaucracies.

"I spent a good deal of my life getting senior management out of the way so the employees who interact with our customers could do their jobs without fear or worry," Mike Leven, one of America's most seasoned hotel executives, explained. "I want to drive decision making down, and bureaucracies like to drive it up." Leven attributed his success to keeping management lean, and as bureaucracy free as possible.

American history is littered with once-big companies that are big no longer because of that very problem, Leven added. "That's because in the private sector, those businesses captured by bureaucracies will lose market share to competitors committed to stealing their underserved customers."

Take Sears. It once ruled the retail world. By the 1960s, one in every 200 U.S. workers received a Sears paycheck, and one in three had a Sears credit card. But the retail giant was beaten by an unlikely adversary from an unlikely place: Sam Walton, who started Walmart with one store in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962.

Small has been beating big since the beginning of time. Somewhere in ancient Palestine, a young shepherd challenged a giant warrior to a fight few thought he could win.

But in hindsight, David had the advantage. He'd been preparing for his opponent his whole life, practicing hours a day with the latest new gear: stones and a slingshot. David developed sniper-like accuracy. And lethality.

Goliath's lumbering size, which had conferred great advantages in hand-to-hand combat, was of no use in this new form of battle. He was too big to succeed.

Thousands of years later, would anyone have given the advantage to two bicycle mechanics from Ohio to invent man-powered flight? The world's top engineering talent was committed to the task but failed because they were trying to solve mechanical problems related to power. The Wright brothers focused on the problem of balance. Their bicycle experience gave them that edge.

Who would have picked two kids from Stanford to best all players vying to dominate the internet? But Larry Page and Sergey Brin—the co-founders of Google—had no turf to protect, and no existing legacies to fight.

That's why 67 percent of Americans think big government is a threat. Because we know how cumbersome and corrosive big bureaucracies can be, even in the private sector.

Government bureaucracies are, by their nature, worse. And worse because they're monopolies. That's why we should cringe at the prospect of a government takeover of our health care system. Because choice is a weapon none of us like to enter any marketplace without. Especially the most important of them all—the health care marketplace. And the fact is, consumers can't have choice without competition. Without real life competitors fighting for our hard earned dollars.

We also know government bureaucracies are greedy. Though Washington, D.C., isn't known for producing anything, it's great at producing wealth for itself. Six of the 10 richest counties in America are Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Federal workers earn an average salary of $110,000 a year. And that's not counting benefits like up to 40 days off per year, up to 18 percent retirement matching and blue-chip health care.

Their total compensation was 17 percent higher than comparable workers in the private sector, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released in 2017. And the cost of providing benefits for federal co-workers was 47 percent higher.

When public servants get paid more than the people they serve, and get vastly superior benefits, that's the definition of greed.

Moreover, those workers never have to face real performance reviews. How can we say that? A Government Accountability study found that 99 percent of government employees in 2013 received a rating of "fully successful" on their performance evaluations—99! Need we say more?

But there's more to the problem of government bureaucracies than waste and greed. In his 2013 book Breakout, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich argued that the innovators of the future are being blocked by entrenched public bureaucracies. And in no arena is that more prevalent than education.

Online innovators are changing the way people obtain an education, providing alternatives to an old and expensive way of doing business. But big city bureaucracies, and the unions they serve, resist change and breakout technologies that could measurably improve the prospects of millions of young people trapped in bad inner-city schools.

Last, there's the destruction government bureaucracies can cause. Take Detroit. In 1960, it was the Silicon Valley of its day, had the highest per capita income in the country—and 2,000,000 residents.

About 50 years later, it declared bankruptcy, and less than 700,000 residents remained. Government bureaucrats and their union pals stripped the economic motor—business—out of the Motor City until there was nothing left but a burned-out chassis.

How bad are things today? One-third of Detroit's 140 square miles is vacant or derelict, with as many as 90,000 vacant lots and 31,000 abandoned homes, according to some estimates. A staggering 57 percent of its children live in poverty, the latest census data showed.

What caused this catastrophe? Corruption of every conceivable kind. Look no further than ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who's currently serving a 28-year sentence for fraud and racketeering.

Look up the story of the late U.S. Representative John Conyers' wife, Monica Conyers, who was one of many Detroit city officials caught in an FBI sting that unearthed rampant city-wide corruption. The Detroit city councilwoman pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery charges in 2010.

Reports of her abuse of office were equally shocking. She often left Detroit restaurants without paying her tab: One restaurant owner estimated Conyers owed him $3,000. That's straight out of the movie Goodfellas.

Conyers also admitted helping her brother Reggie, a convicted felon, get a job originally slated to last two months. It lasted two years.

That's what public sector bureaucracies can lead to: the kind of entitlement and gangsterism that can destroy a city.

Venezuela protests
Students of Universidad Central de Venezuela clash with police after a meeting with opposition leader and President of National Assembly Juan Guaido on November 14 in Caracas, Venezuela. Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty

It can also destroy a country. Venezuela was once the wealthiest country in South America. Today, it is plagued by blackouts, medical shortages and food shortages. Things are so bad, Venezuelans lost an average of 24 pounds in one year, according to Senator Marco Rubio, who led hearings on the failed state.

Worse, the nation is suffering from oil shortages, and that's no small feat, given that it's home to some of the world's largest oil reserves.

Where did all the wealth go? All of it went into the hands of "a small group of cronies who live a life of luxury around the world, their families most certainly do, while the people of Venezuela suffer," Rubio explained. A 2018 report found that 90 percent of Venezuela's 31 million citizens now live in poverty.

These are the stories we should be sharing in response to the democratic socialist plans to eliminate choice and competition from our health care system.

We can't just dismiss or mock their ideas. We must prosecute them.

We need to tell stories about the world where the customer—the citizen—is in charge. And the world where the bureaucracy is in charge.

Tell stories about the world that works. And the world that doesn't. We know the difference.

And tell the story of Detroit and Venezuela. The story of the real-life victims of those government bureaucracies. The real-life corruption that destroyed a once wealthy city and country.

And we should share with the words of Abraham Lincoln, who wondered in his 1838 Lyceum Address how our experiment in self-governance might meet its end. Invasion from a foreign army wasn't his worry.

"If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher," Lincoln said. "As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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