Institutional Disappointment


This piece was originally written five (5) years ago. Except for statistical references such as the National Debt, which is now $30 TRILLION as opposed to $20 Trillion, each an every word is just as applicable today as it was when initially written. Unfortunately, those words almost certainly could be repeated a half decade hence, in that the associated challenges will be actively ignored and the resulting problems will be callously kicked down the road.


Congress is consistently about as popular as cockroaches and traffic jams. There is no single organization or institution that a majority of Americans trust “a great deal.” … [F]ewer people trust the government now than they did after the Watergate scandal. The military is the only institution that commands “quite a lot of confidence”…. That is shockingly unhealthy for a civilian-led democracy. — WASHINGTON POST

The writer of the POST article looks back to a time barely a half century ago when government was enjoying a victory lap. Flush with confidence fueled by successes in the WWII theaters of Europe and the Pacific, America seemed as invincible as Legions returning to Rome. During the first half of the 20th Century, America had matured from the petulant child of the 19th Century. It had survived a difficult and angst-ridden adolescence. Always having tremendous potential, the country lost its innocence and was thrust into adulthood as the early Progressive era gave way to WWI.

America came of age through five decades of tumultuous highs and lows: A Progressive movement reigned in robber barons and their monopolistic trusts. America was instrumental in winning not one but two World Wars. The excesses of the Roaring 20’s gave way to the unsated needs of the Great Depression. FDR instituted the “New Deal,” and those programs along with the industrial buildup leading into WWII pulled the country out of depression and introduced decades of growth and prosperity.

Among particular groups and classes, the country could do no wrong in the 1960’s. There could be little wonder why government and institutions generally enjoyed broad-based support. More government seemed to be a win-win for everyone. Social Security was flush with money, and with rosy economic projections extending ad infinitum, few if any persons considered a time when that old-age program would be approaching insolvency. Not to be outdone by FDR, President Johnson, proposed his “Great Society,” which included a new entitlement program, Medicare. Polling a post-WWII population at the height of their earning potential while looking forward to a guaranteed old-age stipend and medical care, what’s not to like?

They couldn’t foresee Medicare paying out at the rate of $3-to-$1 over premiums received. They couldn’t foresee not one but two unfunded wars extending more than fifteen (15) years (longer than the U.S. involvement in WWI, WWII, and the Korean War COMBINED). Those later military actions will eventually cost more than $3 TRILLION, and added unnecessarily to a nearly unfathomable National Debt, which quickly approaches $20T. Interestingly, the current level of debt is rivaled only by that, which followed the Great Depression and WWII, but America is no longer the only game in town. The assured successes following WWII are not likely to be duplicated in near-term America.

In the mid-60’s, not everyone was enjoying the benefits of an economic boom cycle. A new generation was quickly tiring of U.S. military involvement in the protracted “police action” in Vietnam. After a decade of efforts by MLK, the Civil Rights movement was making strides toward racial equality in America. Nevertheless, America on the whole was doing quite well even if the revelry of the WWII victory was waning, and there were still great accomplishments ahead. After all, we were going to the moon!

Two generations removed from that age of institutional confidence, the above opening quote is quite telling. The military remains a trusted institution being possibly the most fundamental and necessary function of a national government. However, general satisfaction with government is LOWER than after Watergate, which was the textbook example demonstrating that “Power Corrupts.”

In the post-Watergate era, we have come to know that government policies and programs are not always win-win propositions. The presumed growth and prosperity, which would have made massive entitlement programs (i.e. Social Security and Medicare) painless were unrealistic and unsustainable. The necessary sacrifices, which might allow fulfillment of those promises, are unpopular and unpalatable.

In the age of 24/7 news cycles and ubiquitous social media, inevitable shortcomings and ever present biases of politicians are laid bare for all the world to see and critique. Citizens have begun to peep behind the curtain. With an obscene lust, they watch the “sausage being made.” Government is no worse than in past eras, but given the limitations of human nature, it is unlikely that it is or ever will be any better. Rather than great men being challenged and motivated to do great things, the current state of politics encourages timidity, cowardice, and obfuscation. Can we handle the truth?

The problem today is that citizens have come to expect too much from government. Certainly, an institution that curbed the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, pulled the nation out of the Great Depression, and was instrumental in winning two (2) World Wars can make the lives of its citizen easy, or at least relatively painless. Governments can and should play a significant role in macro-level obstacles and challenges: War, Economic Depression, National Disasters, etc. It is relatively easy to motivate a country to collective action in a time of “war” (either actual or metaphorical). Nearly everyone can appreciate and accept the costs and sacrifices. Almost all domestic parties are similarly aligned and ultimately will benefit from success in the endeavor.

However, governments are much less adept at fine tuning a given system or making marginal improvements. Sometimes, the requisite costs or sacrifices, which may be required to achieve fractional improvements, might be seen as prohibitive. When government moves from the macro- to the micro- level, it necessarily involves itself in the micromanagement of individual lives. However, individuals have different needs, disparate wants, unsettled priorities, and competing interests. A benefit to one party often requires contribution or sacrifice from some unrelated party or group. Their respective objectives may not be aligned or even agreed upon. Rather than encouraging cooperation, the result may be competition or conflict.

Government is incapable of accurately picking “winners” and “losers” based upon the billions of decisions, choices, and resulting transactions among citizens every day. There are too many incompatible objectives. Government cannot possess perfect knowledge as to what is the best or most appropriate course of action for all persons at all times. Even if government were omniscient, dictating a strict course of behavior is contrary to the concepts of individual liberty and personal freedom.

Liberty includes the freedom to make mistakes, to do things differently, to set one’s own priorities, and if deemed appropriate or necessary, to act contrary to the accepted “Common Good” or “General Welfare.” Liberty means not having to do that, which is most efficient, most expedient, or which does the “most good” (based upon someone else’s determination of the same). Unfortunately, Liberty also means the freedom to act irrationally and even recklessly, so long as an individual is willing to accept the resulting costs and consequences.

The alternative may be a society with seemingly more certain outcomes, more security, and more perceived safety, but it would be exceedingly less free. Conformity is the price of certainty. Benefiting from the promises of government requires strict adherence to established dictates. Unfortunately, promises are fluid, and the objectives of governments can change on a whim based upon who holds the temporal reigns of power.

Life includes a symbiotic relationship between risk and reward. A life of perfect safety is a life of imprisonment. A life of certainty is likely a life with little reward. The issue boils down to whether one prefers to exist or to live. Government may be capable of sustaining life. It likely can provide sustenance and subsistence for its people. However, America was founded with the hope of something different … something better.

Great Britain undoubtedly provided colonial America with relative safety from outside interests, and provided a more secure economic future (at least in the shorter term). Americans should not choose to subsist or just “get by” (nor should any other person or people). The risk in becoming too comfortable or too complacent is that you will be surpassed, left behind, or become obsolete.

Patrick Henry is famous for having said, “Give me Liberty or give me Death.” The Founding Fathers led quite comfortable lives. They had the most to lose in going from loyal British subjects to traitors of the realm. They were gambling not just their fortunes, but nothing less than their very lives and the futures of their families . They were willing to bet that, given the opportunity, they could live more successful and rewarding lives than would be allowed by the British government. As in life itself, the risk was great, the outcome uncertain, but the potential reward was almost boundless. We, as Americans, are the progeny of those insightful men. We inherited the opportunities afforded by a free society, but we must be willing to accept the commensurate responsibilities and inherent risks of a life unscripted.

Today, there is friction between those, who crave more comfort, security, and safety, and those, who cherish greater freedom, who are less risk averse, and who seek out opportunity for individual success. There seems to be a feeling among many that we can “have our cake and eat it too.” It is impossible to separate completely the risk-reward relationship. There is a belief that safety and contentment will not stifle motivation and opportunity. There is an expectation that productivity and innovation will survive conformity and mandated equality.

It may be possible to provide a social “safety net,” which protects against a single act or limited shortcomings from ruining an individual’s entire life. However, that safety net can never be allowed to become a hammock for casual living. Just as government can generally enforce laws related to traditional crimes but cannot successfully micromanage the lives of 315MM citizens, society can strive to eliminate extreme suffering, but it is unlikely to provide a comfortable lifestyle irrespective of the talents, motivations, and contributions of individuals. It is much easier to agree upon minimal standards of behavior and support as opposed to enforcing ideal behaviors or providing a standard of living without want.

As the standard of living of a reference group improves, there is a desire to live similarly or at least to expect one’s own life to improve proportionally. There is an expectation that “the tide raises all ships.” If we look back upon where we have come as a people, we have made great strides across society. Few of us are not materially better off than our forebears of just a couple of generations ago. However, if we measure our lives against some ideal or against the “Joneses” of the world, we are destined for disappointment and dissatisfaction.

So, why is government so disfavored? Because, we have tasked it to do the impossible. Because, we have assigned to it a myriad of incompatible objectives. Because, our expectations of the institution were unreasonable. Because, we have refused to do those things and to make those sacrifices, which might have allowed government to succeed. Because, we have endeavored to surrender to government the responsibilities and obligations of living our own lives.

The obligation of living one’s life cannot be delegated. The quality of one’s life depends primarily upon the collection of choices and decisions that one makes over a lifetime. Society cannot be held responsible for providing remedy or remediation for a lifetime of bad decisions. Government cannot guarantee a life without hurt, loss, disappointment, and want. If each of us made the most of his own life, then the failings and shortcomings of government and society generally would not seem nearly so dire or important.