Either Contain Government Or It Will Destroy Us

Take a few individuals and put them together in an organization of almost any sort and an amazing thing happens. The organization effectively becomes alive. It now has a heartbeat of its very own and it, the organization, will fight to stay alive from that point forward.

This is true of all types of organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Even though the organization is an artificial entity it will mimic biological life.

First and foremost, it will fight to stay alive. It will seek to expand and grow. It will seek out resources and will fight to retain these resources for its own uses. It will attempt to take care of its own in all of its actions.

And it will do these things almost without regard to who the individual members are or how often they come and go. Although directed by living people, the organization has a life of its own in many profound ways. This isn’t philosophical speculation, it is a fact. 

In a for-profit organization, all of these organizational drives are tempered by the reality of the marketplace. They must convince individuals voluntarily to part with their money for whatever goods and services are offered and do so in a profitable manner. Otherwise, they will cease to exist. These organizational heartbeats depend on success to survive. 

But nonprofit organizations aren’t bound by this reality. And the biggest, most powerful, and most threatening nonprofit organizations that exist are governmental ones. 

The nonprofits we call government don’t have to convince people to part with their money, at least not voluntarily. They can force the issue. They don’t have to provide quality goods or services. Achieving their goals with a profit or even at break-even levels is not required. Thus there are no feedback loops whereby reality can easily alter the paths of these non-profit entities. Effective feedback allows for gradual change and adaptation. A lack of feedback sets the stage for catastrophic failures.

Government is often said to be inefficient. It is not. It is very efficient but its goals are not necessarily what we the people believe they are. As an example, look at the federal war on poverty. Since this “war” was declared in 1964, the federal government has spent more than $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs. But only about 15 percent of the money allocated to fighting this “war” actually makes it to the poor; 85 percent is consumed by the entity. This is not accidental. The organization is quite effective at keeping resources for itself.  

We need to understand and accept the almost biological nature of every entity created by this thing we call government. Every single bureaucracy becomes another beating heart that will strive to continue and grow.

Analyze almost any government program and you will see how efficient the entity is in retaining resources for itself. More than 100 governmental agencies involved in a single issue? As they say in the software business, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!

This is also the reason the nonprofits we call government will never be satisfied with the money sent to them via taxes. From the organization’s perspective (not necessarily the employees’ but the organization itself), it will always be underfunded. Always. 

These non-profits generally grow by constantly adding people, either directly as employees or indirectly by making others dependent on their actions and favors. These individuals will almost always vote in accord with their own self-interest and thus the entity rewards and strengthens itself in a democracy by this constant expansion. 

These governmental organizations effectively have “captured” a major political party and have a significant impact on the other. Which again is not surprising when taken from the perspectives of the various organizations. In fact, it would be astounding if this didn’t happen.

And amazingly, these activities have almost no relationship to the actual people who staff the organizations. Some people might hasten the speed of expansion, others try to slow it but the organizational entity behaves as it does by its very nature. The process is much like a honey bee hive where the hive itself (an abstraction really) mimics intelligence and purpose, even though its individual bees have very little of either.

And these people can all be quite moral and “good public servants,” yet the organization will operate as it will. Swarm intelligence and the self-organization it drives ensure this is true in almost all situations related to government.

We need to understand and accept the almost biological nature of every entity created by this thing we call government. Every single position, every single bureaucracy becomes another beating heart that will strive to continue and grow.

It is easy to blame one political party for the expansion of these nonprofits but this growth occurs no matter which party is at the helm.  

We see this most spectacularly in the transformation of the federal government. Rather than the constitutionally construed federation of states with federal power being strictly limited, the non-profit we call the federal government has expanded to the point that it effectively subjugates the states and all citizens.

From an organizational perspective, this was to be expected. In fact, it would be shocking if this were not the case. The federal government has become much like the Ring of Power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: one ring to rule them all.

For all citizens, the ultimate question isn’t whether this evolution is good or bad but rather it is sustainable and can it work long-term? The answer to this is clear. Left unrestrained government is much like kudzu. Sooner or later it is destined to overgrow its environment until it collapses in a catastrophic failure. Remember that lack of feedback? Unless the lives of these nonprofits is constrained in some way, this process will always occur.

This is neither a conservative nor a liberal issue; it is a basic reality of organizational behavior. These organizations truly live in many profound ways and unless we citizens understand and accept this fact we will never be able to manage them. We either learn to do so or they will most certainly be the destroyers of us all.

Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared at American Thinker in 2016.

About John Conlin

John Conlin is an expert in organizational design and change. He is also president and founder of E.I.C. Enterprises, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the truth here and around the world primarily through K-12 education.

Photo: Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

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