Modern government is a form of technology

by Alan Cohen

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Once upon a time, if you wanted to cut down a tree, you used an axe. An axe was a simple piece of wood with a metal head that could be made by any blacksmith (I presume). Now, an individual wishing to cut down a tree would probably use a chainsaw. A chainsaw cannot be made by a blacksmith – it involves relatively sophisticated engineering and centralized, mechanized production. There is not a chainsaw factory in every small town – this would be impractical – so the use of chainsaws as improved tree-cutting technology implies a modern society, with an educational infrastructure to train engineers, a transportation infrastructure to move goods around, and so forth. Recently, I even saw a specialized backhoe which can cut down, de-branch, and chop up a tree in about 30 seconds using a saw attached to the scoop – this requires even more sophistication than the chainsaw. Such a backhoe is a useful tool for cutting down forests to make highways to transport more goods, all at a feasible price…

This is an obvious example of technology and how it both requires and creates changes in society. Another example is a digital camera: 50 years ago, cameras were both simple and expensive. If your camera broke, you took it to a local repair shop. Now, it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to fix your old one, even for a very minor problem. This is because production costs have come down even as the technological sophistication of the machine has increased dramatically. So in your town you are unlikely to find a camera repairman or a blacksmith.

Modern government is like digital cameras and chainsaw backhoes. When the US was founded around 1800, there was no FDA to furnish government food inspectors. There was no FAA to regulate air transportation. There was no NIH to fund cancer research. There was no cadre of government economists working for the CBO and the GAO and the Fed and the Treasury estimating long-term financial and population projections under hundreds of different scenarios. In fact, there wasn’t much need for the federal government at all, seeing as how everyone could more-or-less remain in their small towns relying on their blacksmith for an axe, their miller for the grain, and so forth.

Now, changes in society have created both a need and a capacity for much more sophisticated government. For example, the fact of air travel necessitates an FAA. Over time, we have learned a lot about what causes airplanes to crash, and now airplanes are engineered with double- and triple-failsafe systems to prevent almost every risk imaginable. The process of regulating how airplanes are constructed and maintained, and how airports are operated, is similar to the way that research has lead to more sophisticated cameras.

In some ways, this comparison may seem facile, but it is quite relevant to current political debates in the US over the complexity and role of government. Obamacare is often criticized by opponents (and even supporters) for being overly complex: 2800 pages and 380,000 words. By contrast, the US constitution is only 4400 words. But perhaps this is natural in the same way that the instructions for making a chainsaw will be much longer and more complex than the instructions for making an axe.

George Will recently had a column where he argued that Obama, rather than Paul Ryan, is the true radical. Will is much more conservative than I am, so I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the premise of his column: that the US has a tradition of limited government, and that Paul Ryan is thus much more in the spirit of traditional American government than Obama, who sees an expansion of the US government into regulation of the health care system as fully appropriate. Where Will and I disagree is on whether a radical departure from traditional government is justified. Despite my reservations about noise pollution and exhaust, I think chainsaws are an improvement over axes. And despite some reservations about bureaucracy, I believe a regulated health care system is better than an anarchic health care system.

In some cases, technology improves on an existing capacity (axes to chainsaws); in other cases, technology creates a new capacity (cameras, computers). Likewise, early governments had to deal with budgets, they just did it with much less sophistication than we can now; they did not have to deal with air travel regulations or regulation of a health care market: these are new government “technologies.”

Just as a technology developed by one company or industry can be used by others (exceptions made for patents), successful regulatory policies used in one country can be copied by others. If you have a company that makes cameras, it would be stupid not to look at the technology used by other companies, evaluate what seems to work best, and incorporate it into your products. Similarly, if the US is trying to design a health care policy, it is stupid not to look around the world, compare the results of different systems, and use what is applicable and effective.

Certainly technology can have a downside. One of the main downsides of government as technology is a system that is often impersonal and rigid, too bureaucratic. But just as with other technologies, we can, as a society, debate the costs and benefits of technology. Is the noise and pollution from a chainsaw worth tolerating in order to improve the efficiency of wood-cutting? Probably. And are better health care outcomes and lower costs worth enough to justify new regulations of health care? Almost certainly. And like other technologies, health care regulations will continue to improve as more research is conducted.

What is not reasonable, in my opinion, is the strong negative reaction many Americans have to complexity in government that they don’t have to complexity in other forms of technology. We don’t understand the inner workings of an iPhone, but we love it because it works. Why should the same not be true for health care regulations, education policies, and so forth? Why is complexity and sophistication viewed with so much fear?

What say you? Has government-as-technology gone too far? Is this concordant with your views of other technology? If not, why not?

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