One of the nobler elements of the American system is its jealous protection of the rights of minority interests. Going back to James Madison’s strictures about balancing faction against faction in Federalist #10, and Abraham Lincoln’s warnings against unfettered popular sovereignty in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Americans have long held to a noble tradition of respecting minority rights, rather than simply riding roughshod over minority factions in the name of decisive majoritarian action.
There are times, however, when this worthy tradition gets carried too far. Former vice president and leading slavery apologist John C. Calhoun, for example, once propagated the idea that America really should be ruled by a “concurrent majority” of elites, just one of whom could veto any proposed policy change. While Calhoun’s larger goal—the protection of the “peculiar institution” of slavery—failed spectacularly in the Civil War, to look at modern-day Washington is to see that his idea has become more popular than one might think.
Calhoun’s believed the concurrent majority would be made up of noble elites looking after the concerns of their people. The reality is more venal: bureaucrats and lobbyists work overtime to scuttle any and all proposed changes, reforms, or accountability.
To get into the origins of this particular phenomenon, which go back more than a century, would be beyond the scope of our efforts here. What we can observe, however, is the natural result of this unofficial “concurrent majority”—namely, a largely administrative state that, with a few rare disruptions, runs on autopilot, implementing programs that cannot be changed or stopped, regardless of their suitability to the moment or how the majority of the American people vote.
In short, the main force in modern American government is inertia.
Federal Tea Tasters and Other Follies
Examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to count. Two of them—one from recent history, and another still ongoing—can, however, illustrate the problem well enough for our purposes.
Beginning with the historical example, let me take you back 122 years, when Congress passed the Tea Importation Act of 1897. Evidently, at the time of the act’s passage, America faced a genuine problem of importing foreign teas that were, according to the FDA, “little better than hay or catnip.” As a result, Congress established a body called the Board of Tea Experts, whose sole job was to taste imported teas before they could be sold on the U.S. market. Yes, the federal government really paid a group of people to do nothing but sit around and drink tea all day in order to protect consumers.
And really, who’s to say it wasn’t necessary . . . in 1897. The Board of Tea Experts, however, was not simply a short-lived program that served the cause of consumer welfare until it was no longer needed. Instead it took until 1995 for this group of federal tea tasters to be abolished, and then only after Congress tried to abolish it for 20 years, only to be frustrated by the angry dissenting voices of the domestic tea lobby, who saw the tea tasters as a vital weapon with which to muzzle competition from foreign tea manufacturers.
If you want to have some idea of whether a program works, the last people you should trust with oversight over it are the people who profit from the program’s continued existence.
To be sure, such protectionist measures sometimes can be justified. But even President Trump, who has long warned against the dangers of fundamentalist and unilateral free trade, probably doesn’t lose sleep over the battle between Bigelow and Twinings.
Yet because government programs are propped up by inertia and the ability of sufficiently determined lobbyists to frustrate all but the most fervent reform efforts, the unofficial concurrent majority was able to keep American taxpayers on the hook for a group of people to have tea parties all day. The idea, to be blunt, is both hilarious and sad.
Private Oversight Is No Oversight
Still, one can take refuge in one basic fact while looking at the tea tasters: at least theirs probably was a relatively cheap program to fund. The same cannot be said for another product of the inertial state—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This supposedly top-of-the-line fighter plane, which has already cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars more than it was originally estimated to cost, makes the tea tasters look like a harmless eccentricity in comparison, and shows the true power of the concurrent majority of corruption in Washington. For heaven’s sake, only half of all F-35s in use by the Department of Defense are even capable of flying missions, compared to 80 percent of all total fighter planes.
A recent, and devastating New York Times article explains why this goes on. According to the Times, the problems with the F-35, which date back years, can be laid squarely on the fact that the Department of Defense, despite shelling out money hand over fist for the planes, does not actually have control over the program. Who does? Lockheed Martin, the company that makes the F-35. Never mind that Lockheed is already being sued by the U.S. government for bilking taxpayers: that’s not even the point.
The point is, if you want to have some idea of whether a program works, the last people you should trust with oversight over it are the people who profit from the program’s continued existence. Yet, to hear the Times tell it, Lockheed apparently has almost complete control over test flight procedures for the plane, not to mention control over all the software and technology required to fly it.
And the Pentagon, apparently, won’t even ask questions despite the program being hundreds of billions of dollars over-budget and decades behind schedule. In fact, the program’s biggest congressional critic—the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—died without achieving measurably improved oversight in spite of years of objections. In one of the more troubling lines in the story, the Times notes: “Recognizing that it was nearly impossible to cancel the program, McCain nevertheless aimed to hold it accountable for its repeated setbacks.”
And why was it nearly impossible? Because, according to Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight, Lockheed deliberately had set up more than 1,500 suppliers for the F-35 program, in every state in the union, effectively making its perpetuation something that was in the interest of every one of those states’ industries, and thus frightening every state’s legislators out of imposing greater scrutiny. In short, Lockheed created a concurrent majority determined to keep the F-35 program alive, at whatever cost.
They Keep Going and Going . . .
Troubling though this story is, it is only illustrative of an even more disturbing fact: that Washington’s obsessive attentiveness to the needs of every single special interest in the country, and the Calhounist style of governance it creates, not only effects political paralysis, it also causes already approved (if unnecessary) government programs to perform like the Energizer Bunny. They just keep going and going and going and wasting money and going.
Right and Left like to squabble over the size and scope of government on a theoretical level, but in this situation, that’s not even the point. The idea that the government should continue performing certain functions without regard to whether they’re needed is not something contemplated even by the most maximalist thinker on government power. Yet, that is how government actually works in Washington, at the expense both of liberals who would like to put new programs into effect for the sake of reform, and of conservatives who seek to end programs that no longer serve their purpose. The inertial state is a problem that, in any sane world, should have bipartisan opposition, and among voters, it certainly does.
Perhaps it’s time Washington listened to the actual majority, then, and not simply to the concurrent majority that lines their pockets, but ultimately does not vest them with their just powers.