Why is it that a major airplane crash gets so much press coverage? The main reason is that it is so rare. A century ago, flying in an airplane was very risky; now there is almost no way you can spend your time in greater safety. Why this remarkable change?
Early on, those in the airline industry realized that to greatly increase the number of potential passengers, they had to change the perception that flying in a little metal tube far above the earth was dangerous. To change the perception, they changed the reality. Whenever there was a crash, or even a failure of an aircraft part or system, government and industry experts spent the necessary time and money to find out why, and then made the necessary corrections so it would not happen again. Decades of failure identification and then mitigation have resulted in the safest transportation system ever devised by man.
Contrast this model with failure in government. Government failures, starting with war, public health, crime, the economy and almost everything else the government touches continue on and on with endless empty promises from the political class that “we are never going to let this happen again.”
Airplane pilots and mechanics undergo rigorous training before being given responsibilities for people’s lives — and their knowledge, skills and health are monitored and evaluated on a regular basis. There are numerous procedures to identify potential problems with key personnel and aircraft parts and systems to make sure action is taken before a tragedy occurs.
There are no 80-year-old pilots in commercial aviation for good reason. We retire senior military officers from direct line command after so many years because they tend to lose their sharpness, among other things, yet we have no age limit or test of cognitive skills for the commanders-in-chief.
Businesses normally hire, promote or fire people on the basis of the expertise they bring to the job and their ability to fulfill the goals of the company. Only in government are people routinely hired for their political connections rather than their expertise or demonstrated past accomplishments. The result is the U.S. now has a secretary of energy who appears to know little about energy or even understands the laws of supply and demand. The Secretary of Transportation seems to know little about transportation, nor does he have any background in the field. Similar comments can be made about many other members of the Biden Cabinet.
Part of the problem is the incentive structure where people are often rewarded more for saying what those in political control want them to say, rather than what good theory and data would indicate. The Fed is supposed to be independent, but often Fed chairs — and other members and even staff — are bullied by presidents, members of Congress and even editorial writers, leading them to make erroneous inflation and other economic forecasts. If the Fed got out of the forecast business and instead used the mean projections of leading private sector forecasters who have good track records, performance — and policy — would likely be improved.
Government agencies often suffer from mission creep, leading them to intrude into areas where they have no or little expertise while decreasing their focus on the core mission. The Fed was originally established to ensure price stability, and then creating full employment was added to their mandate — even though the goal of price stability can conflict with the goal of full employment. Now, the Biden administration has added environmental sustainability and worker diversity to the Fed’s task — not only for its own actions but for those it regulates. These additions are both vague and subjective.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has just announced that all businesses that it regulates must now prepare reports to explain the environmental impact of all of its various activities. This may well double or more the costs of businesses complying with SEC mandates. The new mandate is not explicitly based on congressional delegation of authority to the SEC, nor does it contain any commonly agreed-upon methodology for such reporting.
Fortunately, there is hope for improvement. The Supreme Court has just ruled that the EPA was not given the authority by Congress to regulate all CO2 emissions.
One major way to improve government governance is for Congress to make the dozens of administrative agencies that have acted like independent authoritarian governments strictly limited in mission to only what Congress has explicitly granted. And that these agencies can no longer serve as prosecutor, jury and judge for alleged offenses that those they regulate may or may not have committed.
If people are discriminated against because of gender, sexual preference, race, national origin or religion and they have less liberty than many of their fellow citizens, they may seek redress. Likewise, if a government imposes financial restrictions or financial reporting requirements on certain citizens but not all, they have lost some of their liberty — particularly if the restriction is not based upon competent cost-benefit analysis, which is also true if a government restriction interferes with a fundamental right explicit in the Constitution.
Governments increasingly employ diversity officers. Is it not equally important for governments to employ “liberty protection officers” — to help restrain the excesses of government employees and agencies?
• Richard W. Rahn is chair of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.