Why Is Our Government (And Deep State) So Incompetent?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

Why is our government so incompetent? Short answer: because incompetence has been fully institutionalized in every branch, every agency and every nook and cranny of the state.

Though many may reckon the U.S. government (and its Deep State) are not so much incompetent as merely evil, I suggest incompetence sows the seeds of evil consequences.

It's easy to lay the responsibility for the state's incompetence on its staggering size and complexity, and there is much truth in the notion that no system of this scale and complexity can possibly be governable or accountable.

But I think we owe it to ourselves to dig a bit deeper than this to understand why our visible government (executive, Congress, regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, etc.) and the Deep State (everything that's decided and run behind closed doors) is so monumentally incompetent.

The policies and decisions of the past 15 years can be reduced to three catastrophic blunders: the discretionary war in Iraq and "nation-building" in Afghanistan; allowing those responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown to become even more invulnerable and predatory, i.e. enabling a "too big to fail" banking sector, and Obamacare, the Orwellian-named Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Each of these policy decisions has been enormously destructive to the nation, and the opportunities lost in their wake are irreversible.

I have covered the systemic reasons for incompetence and failure many times.These boil down to the accumulating sclerosis of bureaucracy and the ratchet effect.

I have addressed The Lifecycle of Bureaucracy on a number of occasions:

Our Legacy Systems: Dysfunctional, Unreformable (July 1, 2013)
The Way Forward (April 25, 2013)

When Escape from a Previously Successful Model Is Impossible (November 29, 2012)

Complexity: Bureaucratic (Death Spiral) and Self-Organizing (Sustainable) (February 17, 2011)

The ratchet effect can also be visualized as a rising wedge, in which costs and inefficiencies continue rising until any slight decrease in funding collapses the organization.

Dislocations Ahead: The Ratchet Effect, Stick-Slip and QE3 (February 14, 2011)

The Ratchet Effect: Fiefdom Bloat and Resistance to Declining Incomes (August 23, 2010)

I think we can add a few other factors:

1. That which is cheap and abundant will be squandered until it is no longer cheap or abundant. Our default programming is to squander what is easily available and abundant. This is true not just of resources such as food and energy but of health, trust, power and all sorts of other intangibles.

For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. was left with an abundance of soft and hard power on the global stage. The natural response was to squander it on misadventures instead of investing it wisely.

When we're young and healthy, we squander this reservoir of vitality rather than invest it wisely in habits that will maintain our health as we age.

There are countless examples of this dynamic. The irony of this dynamic is tragic: by the time we realize we've squandered an irreplaceable resource, it's too late.

2. The prime directive of any bureaucracy is to eliminate all accountability. The raison d'etre of bureaucracy, the very reason for its existence, is not to manage complex affairs but to dissipate accountability into a formless cloud so that no member of the bureaucracy will ever face any consequences for his/her actions.

In other words, the prime directive of any bureaucracy is to enforce the perfection of moral hazard, i.e. those making decisions suffer no consequences when the decisions are disastrous.

The entire structure of a bureaucracy boils down to this: we followed the rules, and therefore we are blameless.

Obamacare and the Pentagon are both perfections of this purposeful loss of accountability. I recently saw a video clip of a journalist who had asked 12 different government functionaries who was in charge of implementing the Obamacare website before its flawed launch and he'd received 12 different answers.

In other words, accountability had already been extinguished well before the site was even launched.

3. Bureaucracies are intrinsically prone to group-think. The more closed the bureaucracy, the greater this tendency to eliminate skeptics, heretics, independent thinkers, etc.: Who Gets Thrown Under the Bus in the Next Financial Crisis? (March 3, 2014).

The foundational group-think concepts behind each of the three policy disasters listed above have all been discredited, but only after group-think insured the destruction of vital national interests: for example, the neo-conservative "failed-state" concept that guided a decade of foreign policy misadventures: The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm: Requiem for a Decade of Distraction (Foreign Affairs).

4. As correspondent Lew G. has pointed out, bureaucracies are not designed to be fail-safe; their complexity and lack of accountability lead not to resilience but to fragility and vulnerability.

5. One systems-level consequence of tightly connected, interactive complex systems is that they generate routinely failures known as "normal accidents," catastrophes that result from seemingly small miscalculations and miscues that cascade into systemic crises. When accountability has been lost, there are no feedback loops left to correct these "normal accidents," so the damage piles up within the organization until it collapses in a supernova model of accumulated incompetence.

6. The moral-hazard-riddled leadership of bureaucracies will choose whatever short-term politically expedient fix reduces the immediate political pain (also known as "kicking the can down the road") rather than risk shaking up the organization by imposing accountability and clearing out the deadwood. This dependence on short-term politically expedient "fixes" that ignore the real problems piles up more moral hazard, failed policies, ineffective deadwood and cost, increasing the system's fragility and vulnerability to any shock that cannot be dissolved with another short-term can-kicking "fix."

Why is our government so incompetent? Short answer: because incompetence has been fully institutionalized in every branch, every agency and every nook and cranny of both the visible state and the Deep State.

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Theta_Burn's picture

I alway thought that Acorn org. did good work...

superflex's picture

You forgot the sarc tag.  Please tell me you forgot the sarc tag.

Beam Me Up Scotty's picture

No one's head ever rolls, no matter how big the fuck up is. That's it in a nutshell.

The Juggernaut's picture

The only reason why the US government is in its current state is because if its people.  Its the People that are responsible. "Look at what the US people are letting their government do... so its up to them to change it." should be a headline from now on.

adr's picture

The larger the group of people, the lower the collective intelligence becomes.

In other words, a group of people is only as smart as the dumbest person in the room. When you talk about the United States you get ten steps below Forest Gump or one point above zero brain function. The idea of group think is really to destroy the ability of a single person to succeed. To force the competent to carry the incompetent to the point they can no longer move.

prains's picture

hubris has been culturally institutionalized into every facet of american life. the typical american thinks the sun rises and sets out of their own particular asshole. when you're walking around all day like a zombie thinking you're almost christ-like in omnipitence then it's easy to be fucked over by those in real control......in a nutshell

Herd Redirection Committee's picture

Plus estrogen(-like compounds) in the food, fluoride in the water, anti-depressants for all, and a media and education system that teaches you to 'trust the expert' and 'if you can't beat em, join 'em'.

Dollarmedes's picture

Public choice theory: government seeks its own goals, not those of the governed. Those goals are very often diametrically opposed to the goals of the governed.

Enabling this behavior is the general ignorance of the electorate, which is itself fed by government propaganda in a viscious circle.

So "governmental incompetence" isn't exactly correct. They're very competent at getting what they want.

philipat's picture

"In a democracy, you get the Government you deserve". And that should be the case even more so in a Constitutional Republic.

Mr. Magoo's picture

There is only one explanation, its all by design to make this Govt look bad and be hated around the world. What we really need is a global Govt. to solve all the problems.

Just Sayin

Thought Processor's picture


Yes.  There has been a plan for a long time.  They have been chipping away at it slowly but surely.

One only needs to read "The Grand Chessboard" to understand the larger plan and it's implications.


“Another threat, less overt but no less basic, confronts liberal democracy. More directly linked to the impact of technology, it involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled and directed society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power would rest on allegedly superior scientific knowhow. Unhindered by the restraints of traditional liberal values, this elite would not hesitate to achieve its political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public behavior and keeping society under close surveillance and control. Under such circumstances, the scientific and technological momentum of the country would not be reversed but would actually feed on the situation it exploits.

… Persisting social crisis, the emergence of a charismatic personality, and the exploitation of mass media to obtain public confidence would be the steppingstones in the piecemeal transformation of the United States into a highly controlled society.”


Zbigniew Brzezinski 


Rafferty's picture

I always wondered whether Zbig wrote that as a warning or as a recommendation.

SDShack's picture

I call it the New Feudal World Order. Kings/Queens dictate everything, Lords enforce the dictates and control the masses. Masses are serfs (debt slaves) to the state. Same as it ever was. The great democracy experiment is just about finished.

detached.amusement's picture

"Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power would rest on allegedly superior scientific knowhow."


AGW, FED, Markets, PM manipulation, geopolitcal games...sums up all their actions right there

Buckaroo Banzai's picture

This essay would have been better if it had made a clear distinction that our government is a government of two parts: politicians, and bureaucrats.

Our BUREAUCRACY is indeed sclerotic and incompetent; our POLITICIANS have proven to be breathtakingly competent at looting the country for their own gain.

I think the most terrifying outcome is not even addressed in this article: when corrupt politicians begin to re-form and redirect the bureaucracies to the business of pure corruption. Arguably, the IRS and the ATF are already there, along with the procurement function of the DOD. Once the DHS becomes the modern-day Gestapo (which is rapidly ensuing; the FBI's mission was recently changed from "law enforcement" to "internal security") the transformation will reach a tipping point.

Herd Redirection Committee's picture

FBI Mission creep, got to love it...

Its like they finally realized, "Hey, we're not involved in enforcing laws, wtf are we calling law enforcement our mission for?"

Oh regional Indian's picture

All burrocrats have had rising wedges up their arses as children. Only that can explain their ....their...them-ness, if you get my drift.

It means a cupboard, at the root. Cube, edgy, locked, musty, cobwebbed... that is what I see when I think of a burrocrat.


whatthecurtains's picture

"Why is our government so incompetent?"


Because our government is a good representation of the electorate.

Salah's picture

Bullshit.  The ruling class, best typified in "This Town" by Mark Leibovich (book form) and the "Hunger Games" (cinematic form) is in control.  

Just wait until things get really hairy and the country turns to them for serious "leadership".  

A Nanny Moose's picture

Who was responsible for educating the electorate?

Use of the term electorate presumes that voting actually works, and that the electorate actually has a voice.

Urban Redneck's picture

That's a very Western (or at least American) perspective on bureaucracy. The way it works in a lot places is somewhat different - and the bureaucrats can actually face severe repercussions for poor decisions (the Hollywierd analogy would be a James Bond Spectre board meeting, without the overpriced dramatic death theatrics, since these governments cannot print with impunity). CHS doesn't suffer American Exceptionalism but he does suffer from American Projectionism, and it renders his analysis basically meaningless.

DavrosoftheDaleks's picture

Ironically they seem to roll in China, but not the US. 

Bindar Dundat's picture

The purpose of an entrepreneur is to build a company that will last forever.

The purpose of a politician is to get re-elected.

The purpose of a bureaucrat is to spend the last five years of their career in the highest salary grade for the best pension benefits.

Everyone is driven by the need for security except you and I.

What could go wrong with Acorn in charge?

rosiescenario's picture

"From the smallest acorn the great oak tree grows".....and eventually dies and rots.

Event Horizon's picture

it is simple,,

The US$ global financial debt ponzi is the systemic imperative, it must expand or collapse. Everything follows that paradigm, all others are false.

TideFighter's picture

And ObamaCare was the ultimate Canary-in-the-Coal mine.

pods's picture

Pretty much any government website is about the worst thing you can imagine. From DMV, to Fish and Game, Schools, etc. They all are using tech from 10 years ago and are utterly maddening about what they want you to fill in.  Bureaucracy at work.  Why is it every other company on the web that wants money makes it as easy as possible, but government is brutally inefficient and inflexible?

I am long past the idea that government is workable.

Thoreau had it right:

 "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. 



BadDog's picture

It took the Roman empire centuries to die, let's hope for a better outcome here.

NoDebt's picture

Things move a lot faster in the modern world.  Ability to move quickly around the globe and communicate instantaneously with those who may be on the other side of the planet will do that.

Winston Churchill's picture

Centuries limited by by the canter speed of a horse.

Coms work a little faster nowadays.

nickels's picture

From the point of view of the turkey, the farmer is incompetent, since living conditions are so poor and the food is terrible. Also life expectancy seems very short. Oh well what are going to do? The depressing thing is that this is the best the nation can do with Democracy. God didn't like the cooperation demonstrated by people building the tower of Babel so he broke up the party by giving people different languages and sending them to distant places. We have special interest groups to do the same thing. And we encourage them by buying into it. Democracy is a cybernetic organism that shuts itself down when it becomes too successful.

SDShack's picture

Democracy failed because the people allowed the abandonment of the rule of law that held all people equal. When you allow your representatives to write laws to favor separate classes, or worse, separate laws for themselves versus the people they govern, you enable sociopaths to take over, and sociopaths will dominate everything and everyone to even their own destruction. When you allow no accountability, you forgo justice and allow tyrants to rule. The people have been turned into sheeple, placated by "freedom" which in reality was just a bribe to trick you into dependency. The majority are now enablers of their own slavery. Time to start over.

Spastica Rex's picture

In other words, the prime directive of any bureaucracy is to enforce the perfection of moral hazard, i.e. those making decisions suffer no consequences when the decisions are disastrous.

As a former member of a government bureaucracy, I say the real prime directive of any bureaucracy is to increase its own size and influence.

Doubleguns's picture

Yes the red bullseye in the center demonstrates that very well. At least we know where to aim.

overmedicatedundersexed's picture

Ms lerner of IRS to congress : fuck off  the most recent example of this:

"the prime directive of any bureaucracy is to enforce the perfection of moral hazard, i.e. those making decisions suffer no consequences when the decisions are disastrous."

Spastica Rex's picture

I'd go with: the prime directive of any bureaucrat is to enforce the perfection of moral hazard, i.e. those making decisions suffer no consequences when the decisions are disastrous.

Bureaucracies operate like hives, and will sacrifice individuals when ever necessary to preserve the hive. Or think of a lizard shedding its tail when escaping a predator.

I spent a long time in the hive and left of my own accord. I'm considered an insane bee by my former hive mates.

BandGap's picture

Insanity is in the eyes of the beholder.

My hive thinks a lot like me, and I like them, these days. Outside hives, not so much.

In many of our viewpoints there has been nothing like the changes taking place in the past 3 years. The outcome is inevitable.

Keep the faith.

ElvisDog's picture

I too have spent a lot of time working for a govt agency, and I don't think it's quite as bad as you put it. When you work for the government, you are free to work hard and be productive. So, it's not that everyone who works for the government is incompetent. It's that the bureaucracy protects the incompetent much more so than in private industry. They protect them because as was stated as a govt manager the more headcount you have and the larger your budget is the more successful you are.

So, there are hard-working, productive govt workers, but they have to be self-motivating. There is no "produce or be fired" dynamic that you see in the private sector.

Spastica Rex's picture

I don't think it's quite as bad as you put it

I'm not sure if you're referring to me, or the article. My contention is that the behavior of bureaucracies is emergent from the simple behavior of individual members. Individual members seek to limit their own responsibility for failure. Individual members seek patronage.

And yes, some bees work harder than others. However, a bee better be working to further the interests of the hive.

alangreedspank's picture

When you work for the government, you are free to work hard and be productive

There are scant incentives to do so. Often, there are no bonuses and all pay raises are layed out on a predefined scheduled that only trigger as time goes on and you simply stay on the job.

Of course, they tell us they don't need those incentives to keep being motivated. I beg to differ in most cases.

A Nanny Moose's picture

 Why would they need incentives? Some are paid to sit in lazyboys watching television, go grocery shopping, and go running. It's like summer camp with big red trucks.

Others are paid for watching porn, or shopping online at Vitoria's Secret. Most just close the door to their office, and take naps.


overmedicatedundersexed's picture

as long as most americans have a roof over head, 3 meals, heat, light, entertainment yes yes entertainment,  the promise of healthcare, and retirement on SS, no matter the loss of liberty, the tyranny, high taxation, lack of private property rights, most will willingly accept the states control over life...the roman elite knew it, I am sure egypts pharos knew it, the sheep will be calm the shearing easy. it takes hard times to act against the armed power of the state, and obuma keeps free stuff coming to keep things calm calm, more drugs of all types (legal illegal as long as psychoactive) are always promoted (war on drugs LOL)

Herd Redirection Committee's picture


Whew, I am done for the day.  That took a lot out of me.

rosiescenario's picture

Absolutely....an agency is created to tackle a specific problem and once it is born, it becomes like anyother life form....it multiplies itself. With no predatory constraints it eventually reaches a point at which it has totally devoured and destroyed its own food supply causing a mass die off of its members....


The flesh eating bacteria makes for an interesting comparison to our current government. Amputation is the only solution.

aardvarkk's picture

I would think it depends entirely on the people running the bureaucracy.  If they're ambitious, then yes, they'll want to increase the size and influence of the beast they're running.  If they're not, then they'll be looking to simply maintain or increase budget while staying as invisible as possible and marking time.

Spastica Rex's picture

The second type you outline above is eliminated by natural selection; those bureaucracies that desire to grow out-compete.

My hive analogy only goes so far, particularly since a particular bureaucracy, or hive, often exists in a larger context, as part of a larger unit. We have meta-hives whose behavior emerges from the constituent behavior of smaller units.

I don't believe that bureaucracies are limited to government, either.

youngman's picture

Just go to a Drivers License office to see this in effect...when no one ever gets fired....you get this...