Alex Massie Alex Massie

The Federal Problem

Conor Friedersdorf makes a point that is too often overlooked:

Abraham Lincoln often commuted three miles on horseback so he could sleep on the grounds of a military hospital at night; and that once during the Civil War a British traveler who wanted to meet Lincoln knocked on his door, got invited inside, and ended up spending over an hour chatting with the president. It is hard to imagine a modern president enjoying so much downtime. Perhaps so many early presidents are ranked among the best because though they faced grave problems, their tasks were limited. How would Lincoln’s job performance have changed if on top of his other duties he also had to worry about FEMA, the TVA, OSHA, the NEA, the NIH, the USDA, HUD, the FDIC, the DOT, the ONDCP, the Department of Energy, the OMB, the Department of Education…

This seems true to me, though one ought also to remember the power nostalgia exerts when these presidential rankings are compiled. The desire to return to a quasi-mythical simpler age is strong.

Still Conor has a good point. Many of these programmes and departments could quite easily be abolished completely or, in other cases (eg, education, HUD) simply repatriated to the states. That would be a good thing anyway, absent any other consideration. One reason that the electorate is so disenchanted (Congress’s approval rating remains below 20%) with Washington politics is not so much concerns over “partisanship” (generally meek and mild in the US, by international standards anyway) but that nothing ever seems to get done and what does get done is all too frequently either incomprehensible or riddled with so many trade-offs and concessions as to be all but pointless. The business of government increasingly seems to be about creating more business for government.

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