The Lathe of Government

by Timothy Lane   11/29/13
Reading Michael Barone’s “Kludgeocracy” (especially the title) reminded me of a notion I once formed after reading the novel The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin.

In the novel, a psychologist gets an unusual patient – a man whose dreams sometimes alter reality. After verifying this, the psychiatrist succumbs to what another genre called the Ring of Power. Eager to change the world for the better, he tries to get his patient to do so through his dreams.

Like “The Monkey’s Paw,” it works after a fashion. When the psychiatrist tries to get rid of racial tension, everyone is given some neutral coloring. When he tries to unify the world, an alien menace turns up on the Moon. When he wants them off the Moon, they land on Earth. And yet he never learns that the dreaming process works too irrationally to accomplish what he wants. His goal is really to exert power, not to improve the world.

To me, it was quickly clear that this made a perfect metaphor for government. Our rulers tell themselves that they mean well, just as the psychiatrist did. But their solutions always are designed to increase their power, and they show no interest in getting rid of programs that don’t actually work. (Consider, for example, that studies have shown that Head Start doesn’t work for decades – I first read about this in early 1969 – yet the program not only continues but grows. Obviously, improving people’s lives is NOT the actual concern here.)

Equally, one must realize that the liberal dream of experts writing perfect laws and then managing them with equal skill is just as false. The laws are written by a log-rolling Congress under heavy influence by lobbyists. These laws will then be interpreted by bureaucrats acting out of any number of motives (including, again, the influence of special interests)). The same problems occur in actually executing the results. The results are far more time-consuming than the patient’s dreams in the novel, but the results make little more sense.

And all of these problems help explain why even good ideas don’t work out very well in government (and bad ideas become even more harmful).
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One Response to The Lathe of Government

  1. Kung Fu Zu says:

    ‘studies have shown that Head Start doesn’t work for decades – I first read about this in early 1969 – yet the program not only continues but grows. Obviously, improving people’s lives is NOT the actual concern here.’

    You hit it on the head. Their goal is power and such programs as Head Start simply go to increasing and maintaining their power. If you create new government programs you can spread largess. Many of the people who work for the program will do their best to keep the program alive no matter what. Perhaps they will also vote for the politicians who push the program. The single mothers will also be happy to have someone babysit for them. No doubt they will also vote to keep the program alive.

    The real goal, dependency in one form or another develops. Our servants become our masters.

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