No Light Rail in Vancouver!
The Antiplanner’s Law of Good Government
Many libertarians argue that state governments do a better job than the federal government, and local governments are the best of all. Anyone who has dealt with a city council or planning commission, however, soon realizes that cities can be as inefficient and undemocratic as the feds.
Advocates of small government argue that government would work better if only it weren’t so large. Yet students of nineteenth century American history know that the federal government, though tiny then compared with today, was subject to proportionately as much pork barrel and waste as it is today.
After more than three decades looking at government and government planning, I’ve come to realize the flaw in these arguments. And so I’ve formulated the Antiplanner’s Law of Good Government.
The Antiplanner’s Law
Good government depends not on its size or geographic scope but on the narrowness of its mission and the alignment of its incentives with that mission.
A government agency with a single, narrowly defined goal is going to work far better
than one with nebulous or numerous goals. Tell the U.S. military to defeat another
country’s army, and they can do it. Tell it to resolve centuries-
Peter Drucker traced the downfall of U.S. education to the time when the federal
government decided schools should teach more than the three-
“Government will malperform if an activity is under pressure to satisfy different constituencies with different values and different demands,” wrote Drucker. “Performance requires concentration on one goal.”
In the short run, an agency with a narrow mission can accomplish a lot. But in the long run, if that agency’s incentives are not aligned with its mission, it will have problems. It will suffer mission creep.
Mission creep begins when someone discovers that the rewards for doing something that is not a part of the agency’s mission are greater than those for fulfilling the mission. Agency leaders soon come to believe that their real mission is to do those things that are most rewarding, not whatever was its original goal.
In 1952, the Forest Service was proud of the fact that it was one of the few federal
agencies that actually made money. It viewed this profit as evidence that it was
successfully accomplishing its mission of managing the national forests in the public
interest. But over the next two decades, forest managers learned that they could
keep a nearly unlimited share of timber receipts. Money-
By 1976, most national forests lost money and the Forest Service as a whole was on its way to losing $1 billion per year. (Today it loses something like $4 billion per year.) Rather than take this as evidence that they were doing something wrong, forest managers piously observed that, “We’re the government. We’re not supposed to make money.”
In 1960, hundreds of thousands of people were locked up in state mental homes. But new medicines made it possible for these people to function normally. So the federal government encouraged the states to close these hospitals and promised that the National Mental Health Service would monitor them to make sure they took their medication.
However, as the former assistant director of the Mental Health Service documented
in a book titled Nowhere to Go, the mental health clinics soon realized that mentally-
If we can’t give an agency a narrow mission and find a way to align its incentives with that mission, we would be better off not having the agency. It will do more harm than good.
In an urban context, this means it makes sense to have local sewer districts, water
districts, and so forth. As soon as we start talking about regional districts with
broad authority over lots of different urban services, the mission gets so vague
that it becomes certain that the agencies will founder. Their decisions will be based
on politics — which special-
Unlike some, I am not anti-
Reprinted from The Antiplanner