Doing "nothing" seems simple. Commonly, doing "nothing" requires little thought or physical exertion. It demonstrates no prowess on the part of the performer, nor does it determine incompetence. But is it really possible to do "nothing"? No living thing can truly do "nothing" without ending its life. The human body, among other living things, is a remarkable and fascinating machine, filled with all sorts of churning and fluttering components. Any person doing "nothing" is, in effect, doing a great deal.
Americans, ever since that term was legitimate, have strived to do as much nothingness as possible in every realm of life. The purpose of technology - of all advancement - is the convenience by which its creator may continually do less to continually have and enjoy more. The most-highly trafficked websites are the ones that are easiest to use. Our cars contain voice-activated controls and temperature sensors; and some occasionally park themselves. We have water faucets that automatically turn off and light fixtures that automatically turn on, induced only by the proximity of movement.
Indeed, every day Americans build more to do less in every aspect of their lives - a good and useful pursuit - except when it comes to their government. In fact, conventional wisdom holds that the government operates in a completely different paradigm than private industry - one that is not subject to competition or concerned with profit. So while advancement is useful for private endeavors, it is less relevant to the bureaucracy.
Recently, in an interview with ABC News, Michael Moore laughed at John Stossel's insistence that there was no single thing the government could do better than the private sector. Moore's response was "You are, like, so Thirteenth Century...." which - while historically puzzling - continues the tired premise that the redeeming value of modern thought is that it differs from previous thought. Political theory is only as fashionable as it is fresh.
Moore believes that the key to making society work (outside of removing "for profit" processes) is to make the citizenry concentrate on the poor at all costs. To the average liberal, this bottom-up perspective is as simple as it is new and therefore progressive and therefore good. Never mind the historical failure of this model in other countries and the fact that capitalism is much more modern than statism.
To Moore and company, being good to the poor is a human obligation; and those that disagree must be compelled. And what legitimizes this obligation? Because it is "simple".
But he is not alone in branding his preferences as "simple". All ideologues lay claim to simplicity, if by one name or another, and it is useful that they do. Respect and reputation come to those with the most converts, and cynics are rarely converted through complex theories. Thus, it is only rational that the most-respected political theories are loved, in part, for their simplicity. Simple is cool.
For conservatives, classical economic theory advocates the exclusion of government from the marketplace. The invisible hand is not to be disturbed; hence, the success of fair trade ultimately lies with individuals doing nothing at all. They are only required to act upon urges that are natural: urges that seem "simple". In "On The Wealth of Nations", P. J. O'Rourke refers to Adam Smith's discoveries as "simple" in what he calls the Simple Principles. Here again, simple is good.
Yet as we examine these political preferences, we are able to determine how "simple" each truly is.
Socialism, as an ideology, may seem simple as it is passed from one ideologue to the next. But in practice, it has born vastly-different fruit. History cannot recall one era of advancement that has resulted organically from socialism. Russia experimented with many sorts - even allowing other cultures to grow their own in-house version such as the introduction of The Bund at the end of the 19th century. If socialism was simple, hundreds of years of practice should have established a credible way of producing advancement and growing wealth.
The complexities of socialism are many. For socialism to sustain itself, the citizenry must believe that the government is both well-intentioned and efficient. The citizenry must also be ardent nationalists, believing that the cause of socialism as a whole is far more meaningful than their own individual existence, and the education system must maintain this masquerade.
How simple is conservatism? Bureaucracy never stops trying to expand, therefore creating a permanent job on the part of conservatives. The act of cleansing red tape is not simple either. A bureaucrat is nothing more than a regular person trying to excel at a position, and removing bureaucracy would eliminate his job.
Technological inventions provide us a tangible example of the problem of simplicity. This is because inventions either provide advancement and are quickly accepted in the marketplace, or they are seen as superfluous and kicked to the curb. Our society, on the other hand, has lived under failed political policies for decades with no end in site, perfectly content to reelect leaders who make no effort to change the status quo. Thus, it would seem that the American government really does operate in a unique paradigm.
Google, the ubiquitous search engine, is very easy to use. Users are presented with a single textbox in which to enter search terms. Once the terms are submitted, results are instantly displayed. It is hard to imagine any easier method of searching, yet the underlying mechanisms that translate terms to results are anything but simple. Google must parse the submitted words and match them against an enormous plethora of information, whose content and context are ever changing. In Baseline Magazine, July 2006, David Carr notes that Google's "simple" search environment operates on more than 450,000 servers in 8-10 locations across multiple countries.
Why then cannot governments eventually produce the same simple solutions? The Department of Motor Vehicles is as convoluted today as it was thirty years ago, if not considerably more so. Automated ticketing has been installed and the lobby chairs are softer, but those are nothing more than flimsy ways of dressing up the mess. If complex mechanisms can, over time, produce simple interfaces for consumers, the American government should be capable of better offerings. Time is not at all relevant here; government is the oldest business of all.
The answer comes down to something that was discussed at the beginning: a lack of competition and concern for profit. Private companies either succeed or die, and in order to succeed they must create. They must refine. They must rehash. If they do not, their products grow stale, their market base erodes and their value disappears. Are there exceptions? Certainly. Many businesses seek to eliminate competition, thus eliminating their need for creativity. But for the majority of businesses - the millions of small and medium-sized ventures - this is not possible. The government has no similar feedback loop. It has no "succeed or die" requirement.
A perfect solution to this problem is not readily available. Adding complexity to government means adding jobs and paperwork, and the persistence of those things immediately begins to outweigh the original goal. Ronald Reagan knew that he didn't have the perfect solution for fixing government, but he strongly believed that he could eliminate the need for fixing a bigger government in the future.
Perhaps any area of government that is not obviously simple - by its nature - should be eliminated. Consider the IRS. Consider nationalized health care. Complex or obviously simple? This solution may not be practical to implement, but it is at least entertaining to think about.