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Why America Needs A Great Civil Service

Henry Adams described the hopelessness in Washington in 1860 and early 1861 as the country careened towards break-up and war this way: “No one could help. Looking back on this moment of crisis, nearly 50 years afterwards, one could only shake one’s white beard in silent horror.” I’ve thought about this passage a lot lately in light of the serial failures of government’s response to the current pandemic.

Every level of government – federal, state, local, elected representative, appointed administrators, and hired bureaucrats – has failed repeatedly and with devastating consequences the full extent of which we won’t know for years. And it’s a bipartisan affair. Some of the Republican governors have done a better job while some of the Democrats have done worse. Gretchen Whitmer, for whom marijuana and booze are essential while tomato plants and fertilizer for home gardens are not, comes to mind as an example of the latter. Doug Ducey in Arizona, in his typical low-key style, has charted a steady course, adjusting as necessary, that has done right by his state.

It’s true that there have been some noteworthy successes at the federal: the FDA, so recently dilatory, has since accelerated the approvals of tests and drug trials. That’s good. But for every success there is a litany of failure: the CDC botched the initial COVID tests by failing to follow basic lab protocols and lost a critical month, masks, we were told, do nothing and aren’t worth the effort, but now they are mandatory, the Department of Health and Human Services ignored and then rebuffed the repeated pleas of a Texas company that could manufacture 7 million N95 masks per month even as Jared Kushner and his dream team were begging for critical PPE re-supply from China. And on and on it goes.

I won’t get into the reliance upon opaque and error filled statistical models that predicted millions dead in the coming months except to quote a former Google software engineer who reviewed the code behind the Imperial College model that was recently released after a month of upgrades(!): “Due to bugs, the code can produce very different results given identical inputs. They routinely act as if this is unimportant. This problem makes the code unusable for scientific purposes, given that a key part of the scientific method is the ability to replicate results.”

All of this has left me wondering why we don’t have and don’t demand competence, even excellence, from government. And the conclusions I’ve come to are sobering and don’t reflect particularly well on either side of the American political divide. Each has its own pathologies that have conspired to lead us here.

Left liberals tend to idealize the competence of “career professionals” in the [insert government agency here] and invest them with the twin super-powers of credentialed “expertise” and unquestionable altruism, while right liberals tend to generalize about deep state bureaucrats who are feckless layabouts at best and bad actors running unaccountable shadow governments at worst. Those suspicions are only encouraged by porn and the serial abuses in the Trump-Russia and Trump-Ukraine stories.

Both have enough truth behind them to persuade people looking for some quick confirmation bias. But the fact is that we don’t have a culture that encourages the best and brightest to pursue careers in the civil service. In some cases government services is the capstone to a successful career elsewhere. But that only impacts appointees, not the far more numerous, and in the aggregate more powerful, permanent staff. Rather we should all want a system in which extremely talented, energetic people pursue careers in government and are compensated accordingly both financially and in social status.

Unfortunately, lionization and vilification of the civil service has become a proxy battle for more fundamental political disputes that should be had out in the open and on their own terms. The real questions are what should government do and how is the civil service held accountable for the right use of the power it has been given by the elected branches of government?  Those on the right must acknowledge the necessity of a top-flight civil service instead of indulging fantasies about it’s elimination or dramatic reduction in size. (Closing the Department of Education, which I support, would eliminate just 4,000 jobs out of over 2 million civilian, non-USPS federal government employees) And those on the left must acknowledge that credentialism is not the same as excellence and that the civil service has too little accountability. Both should embrace a culture of institutional excellence.

We had it once. Which brings me to back to the COVID response which is a useful case study. I’ve been struck by two essential flaws. The first is the absence of a clearly stated goal. The second is the sense that all of the decision makers seem to lack a sense of agency or authority. They all seem to act as though they were simply role-players. When the nation need real expertise and real leadership we’re stuck with LARPers trying to create the illusion of control.

The last time there was a more or less articulated goal was in mid-March. The goals seemed to be to “flatten the curve” to the point where demand for hospital bends, especially Intensive Care beds, did not exceed their supply and thus prevent avoidable deaths. This was predicated on alarming scenes from Northern Italy and the horrific predictions of the now widely discredited Imperial College epidemiological model, which may be the subject of another post. That was a pivotal moment and since then the response has been haphazard, incomplete, meandering, and generally embarrassing.

Here’s what could have happened.

The president could have made a statement that was both clear and true in March like, “We are facing an emerging public health threat about which much is unknown. It could be very deadly and there is no known treatment that is highly effective. Out of an abundance of caution we are recommending protective measures for high-risk people, the wearing of masks to slow the spread, social distancing measure, and stay-at-home orders at the governor’s discretion as locally appropriate. We are committed to ensuring the abundant supply of Personal Protective Equipment, or healthcare equipment like ventilators, and of critical pharmaceuticals. We are also putting the full power of government behind the development and rapid deployment of testing, of therapeutic drugs and vaccines. A new, regulatory regime will be applied to these drugs that will allow them to be tested and approved in record time. As we know more, we will adjust our policies accordingly.”

If the response had been clear-headed and goal-oriented, there is also the legitimate possibility that you could stop and then quickly restart the economy with real, but not devastating pain. But that would have required a plan that said, “we’re pausing for ‘X’ period time to get a handle on this and then we’re starting again on  (insert certain date here) unless we’re overwhelmed with cases”. But that would have required a) a mature assessment of the situation including the knowns, unknowns, and variables b) strong leadership c) a plan based on (a) and (b). But the uncertainty engendered by half-baked, ill-informed decisions wrought havoc. I hasten to add, that I say this not as a “floomer”, but as someone who saw the threat from the virus starting in January and wanted a robust response.

Instead we got the combination of institutional paralysis and low-rent political theater at every level. Dr. Fauci, commonly referred to in the press as “the country’s leading expert on infectious disease” has been all over the place on every issue from the threat posed by the virus to the efficacy of masks in slowing it’s spread. He’s also been called “the sexiest man alive” by a Change.org petition with over 25,000 signatures. Thankfully, both descriptions are false. What Fauci is, in addition to being Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, is a careerist bureaucrat in the pejorative sense. I don’t mean to pick on Dr. Fauci too much, he’s no different than lots of people in the civil service: as the kids say, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

But how much better off would the country be if the person running the NIAID really were the “leading expert on infectious disease”? Or at least something close to it. The civil service shouldn’t be the end-point for the unlucky and the unambitious.  There are multiple contemporary examples of countries that have a legacy of institutional excellence and that consistently attract the top people to civil service careers. Singapore and Japan come to mind. But so does France that has a long history of bringing the best and brightest into career government service. The education system is, in some sense, a sorting mechanism designed to identify these people and train them for service. The civil service exams are famously rigorous and ENA, which trains France’s civil service elite, is perhaps the most selective school in the country producing just 80-90 graduates per year.

Every great nation and empire that lasted had a system for identifying and developing top talent to run the government. America must do the same or suffer the consequences. Edward Luttwak wrote that this was why “the Roman Empire was so uniquely successful for so long – outliving 10 Chinese dynasties.  Imperial officers recruited natural talents everywhere, each recruit for the army or the bureaucracy was trained individually to set standards (Israeli basic training tironut is from the Latin for recruit), and then rotated around the Empire from Syria to Yorkshire, from Tangier to Vienna, to learn how to fight and rule different cultures as the world’s first cosmopolitans.” The British did something similar.  Yet Americans are locked in a conflict where the Left says we’ve already got it (we don’t) and the Right says either, we don’t need it or it’s impossible to develop excellence in the civil service that isn’t necessarily tyrannical. Both are wrong.

Venice, the longest lived republic in history, had the Arsenale, a large, state-owned complex of shipyards and armories that helped safeguard their prosperity and security. Henry the Navigator was the patron of the school of navigation and cartography in Portugal that accelerated the Age of Discovery.

The Right fears that an effective, competent government will be abusive; you get the efficiency but lose the freedom. I’m sympathetic to that view. It’s definitely possible. But that’s why we have politics. A highly competent civil service shouldn’t be a substitute for politics. That’s been the Progressive argument; that government could be reduced to technocracy that replaces politics with the science of governing. Instead, a highly competent and accountable civil service should facilitate a robust politics.

How do we develop this? That’s a bigger question, to which I will return. For today, it’s enough to recognize the need.

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Chris Buskirk

Chris Buskirk is editor and publisher of American Greatness and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

@thechrisbuskirk