The government gorilla


Some 225 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, opened with, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” He was talking about the overreach of the aggressive bureaucrats of the day. With reports of secret government investigations of news gathering agencies and evidence of widespread use of the Internal Revenue Service to prevent the civil formation of groups that might resist broad government expansion (including but not limited to those associated with the historic Boston Tea Party which rebelled against the tyrants of that time), Jefferson’s remarks to his friend is equally relevant today.

Even if we assumes good intentions, can government (or really any institution) be expected to constrain its thirst for power and the expansion of its role? Early in my career, I worked with then Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s efforts to review and reform regulation in the Circle City. Some of the code had been on the books for decades and failed to serve any constructive purpose (sometimes it had even become destructive). As a part of the process, I interviewed and worked with scores of long-time bureaucrats and functionaries of the administrative state. Not surprisingly, I found the bulk of the folks to be good, hard-working Hoosiers. There was almost uniform belief that the job being done was important – in some cases, almost a religious commitment to the cause was noted. And, it was not difficult to identify people eager to improve the function of the state.

Yet, when the bureaucratic apparatus felt threatened, it, perhaps understandably, recoiled. The same leaders who sought the very best contract to save money on pens for the office, would defend to the death entire superfluous departments. Should we be surprised that an 800 pound gorilla becomes dangerous when it is annoyed?

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