Paul Jacob

When we slough off the responsibility, on the other hand, those pros tend to become lazy, careless, narrow-visioned, hide-bound, incompetent, greedy. And we, the citizens, become lazier yet, heedless, irresponsible, fearful, accepting, poorer.

Across America many institutions thrive, completely dependent on the older, more reliable form of organization. Many a small-town fire department is run by one or two professionals, with most actual fire fighters serving as unpaid volunteers. Same goes for many a rural ambulance service.

Indeed, a country friend tells me that he had nearly a dozen EMTs in his house ten minutes after he called 9-1-1. That was overkill, but the extras didn’t get in the way. They were just there if needed. Two EMTs took charge. A few of the extras helped move furniture to allow a gurney free access. And the whole event took no more than a half hour.

One might not expect such service from highly paid professionals in urban areas.

The demand for professionals, however — for pros at every level of a government enterprise — can scuttle this sort of voluntary efficiency, and leads to huge public expenditures and exorbitant taxes. And the demand for professionals seems to be growing — at least from other professionals — with each crisis.

The huge expense, the continued growth of this sector — this would all be acceptable if the professional services could do good at their specified jobs. But the quality of service tends to degrade, even to the point of negating the very purpose invoked.

I think of this degradation as the Dead Pet Dog Effect, after the tale of the Maryland town mayor whose house was descended upon by misguided, misdirected drug warriors. This platoon of “professionals” held the innocent family at gunpoint, going so far as to shoot their dogs, not realizing until too late that their target was the actual mayor of Berywyn Heights, and that their case (as well as their warrant) had no merit. This counter-productive unprofessionalism really is the hardly unexpected result of too much professionalism, as well as of too few effective limits on power.

We should heed Brin’s warning. We should begin, again, to suspect folly whenever professionalism becomes the be-all and end-all of a public service. If we “forget our American tradition” we will find ourselves victimized by what Brin calls the “professional protector caste.”

This is not to say that these professionals aren’t needed. But they are needed in context. And we who depend on them must remember that context. We should also keep in mind that these professionals — if employed by governments — typically exhibit certain pretty obvious limitations.

The biggest limitation is lack of resilience, as Brin says. And this limitation seems endemic to government operation, as observed more than a century ago by a major 19th century sociologist:

Unlike private enterprise which quickly modifies its actions to meet emergencies — unlike the shopkeeper who promptly finds the wherewith to satisfy a sudden demand — unlike the railway company which doubles its trains to carry a special influx of passengers; the law-made instrumentality lumbers on under all varieties of circumstances at its habitual rate. By its very nature it is fitted only for average requirements, and inevitably fails under unusual requirements.

Though we might think that bureaucracies and government professional services are there for emergencies, they have historically worked their best just plodding along. FEMA’s inglorious failure with Katrina was not simply the result of an incompetent president. It was part and parcel of how governments go about their routine.

To expect more may be to expect the impossible.

And when experts do try to prevent a future catastrophe, they are often amazingly blinded by their own limits of vision. Think of the Maginot Line. Then think of the Department of Homeland Security, or the TSA.

Placing our trust in government is almost certainly the wrong way to go about securing ourselves from danger. Instead, we should work to keep our governments’ emergency forces lean, adding our own muscle as required.

We would not only save taxes. We would save lives, too. 

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.