Our government is struggling to perform basic tasks

There is a plague loose in the land for which no vaccine will soon be available.  And while you may say it’s no big deal that Canada, one of the world’s most advanced economies with a world-famous-in-Canada health-care system, won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine any time soon since we um can’t make vaccines, and by you I mean Justin Trudeau, I’m talking about a far more widespread and dangerous malady: government incompetence.

I do not say people in government are incompetent.  At least not unusually so.  I don’t even say politicians are slow-witted although too much time thinking the wrong kind of thoughts has rendered them obtuse.  But I do say that governments in Canada, and many other places, are struggling to perform basic tasks adequately for reasons fairly easy to diagnose despite some complex comorbidities.

The first is that the incentives in government are different.  Which is hardly an original insight.  But as Samuel Johnson said, “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.”  Or the more inclusive “people” though many women might think men were especially prone to this issue in some areas.  But never mind.

The point is, many of us need to be reminded that the ability of private sector customers to take their business elsewhere forces employees and entrepreneurs to swallow their pride, pull their socks up, and satisfy the client, or line up for pogey and in government no such mechanism operations.

Having lost sight of this point, we also forgot that in performing their essential functions, which do exist though they are not nearly as numerous as we often suppose, governments require special accountability mechanisms to make up for the lack of an “exit option” for citizens.  Things like parliamentary oversight, transparency, division of powers, the obligation to resign if caught being inept or sleazy and so on.

A third problem is that government is overloaded.  Nobody could possibly do half of what it is attempting even if it were not often of such a cosmic nature, like freeing us of unwelcome online content, that nobody could possibly do it if it were their only job.

I’m not saying governments are uniformly incompetent.  Even our own do many things fairly well, for instance redesigning our coins and currency, and these achievements rarely make the news for the same reasons the Paleolithic Times hollered “Sabre-tooth tiger outside village” when there was one but not “No sabre-tooth tiger outside village” when there wasn’t.  (The reasons being a mix of regrettable sensationalism and commendable prioritizing of information important to customers.)  But nowadays governments bungle far too many things that matter, from budgeting to defence to the pandemic.  And the symptoms get far too little attention given how widespread they are.

Consider the revealing detail that the RCMP is on the verge of a terminal meltdown of its ATI system.  Of course to some degree they want to fix it.  Most Mounties are proud of their work and wish to retain public confidence.  On the other hand, if the whole thing did just collapse they could, they think, stop answering embarrassing questions and get back to the real work of policing.  Which they’re already doing as well as they can so leave us alone.

Those within an organization are not well placed to appreciate the merits of accountability mechanisms which, to be frank, trade short-term pain for long-term gain.  Theirs as well as ours, I might add.  But if it’s easy to see why the Justin Trudeaus of this world aren’t keen on scrutiny, on practical or philosophical grounds, why do we let them get away with it?

Here I’d like to consult a colleague, Rex Murphy, whose powerful piece in Wednesday’s National Post treated a seemingly unrelated topic, the meltdown a number of wokies had at Penguin Random House because their employer was about to publish another blockbuster by genuinely world-famous intellectual Jordan Peterson.  Of course I can understand someone at a publishing house having reservations about the merits of some of their output on grounds of style, content or both.  But surely it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, just as you can be a waiter in a restaurant without liking every item on the menu.

I don’t just mean you can grit your teeth and serve it.  I mean you can actually approve of offering a range of items including ones not to your taste because you take pleasure in furnishing diners with things they enjoy even if you wouldn’t and in, of all things, diversity.  Not any more.  And I think the woke phenomenon is another reason governments are so inept these days.

It’s not just that we ask the state to do things it cannot do and should not attempt, like make sure nobody offends our oh-so-delicate sensibilities.  It’s that an obsessive focus on hurt feelings makes it impossible to be tough-minded about what works.  Plus we have only so many hours in the day and every minute devoted to pondering microaggressions is a minute not spent pondering deliverology.

Thus we choose politicians who sooth us with endless affirming phrases and soft promises of a brighter tomorrow, and we and they lose patience with those tedious nitpicking restraints on government, from a federal system to free speech to access to information, that seem to delay the arrival of the New Jerusalem.  And then suddenly we can’t balance the budget, extract a straight answer on specifics or get a vaccine when we really need one, just another injection of “liquidity” or some such anodyne vacuity.

The solution here is not to hire smarter or nicer bureaucrats because the problem is not dumb or surly ones.  On the other hand we should certainly elect less vapid politicians, which would require a long-overdue self-examination by significant segments of the electorate.  Particularly about accountability.

It’s not a panacea.  It’s a regimen involving eternal vigilance against smug incompetence as well as outright tyranny.  So let’s hit the gym, folks, because there’s no anti-bad-government vaccine coming.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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