If You Build It, It Will Grow

Rich Tucker

7/20/2007 12:00:00 AM - Rich Tucker

The engineer from Iowa should have known better.

In her excellent new history of the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man,” Amity Shlaes describes Herbert Hoover’s tenure as Commerce Secretary. The future president wanted to build up his department’s role in our economy. For starters, Shlaes writes, “Hoover envisioned a giant new department building.” And he got it. During his presidency, Hoover saw the opening of a mammoth Commerce building, containing 35 acres of floor space.

Today’s outsized federal government grew out of the depression, and while much of the blame belongs to Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover bears his share as well. “Some of the projects [FDR pushed through] were mere extensions of Hoover’s efforts, no matter what Hoover said,” Shlaes writes.

But the real problem with putting up a giant federal building is that, if you build it, they will come. A big federal building quickly swells with tiny bureaucrats. They move paper, create regulations, hire new bureaucrats to work for them. Eventually, everyone in town forgets that the federal government was supposed to be small and unobtrusive. But the American people haven’t forgotten. All this provides the answer to a question The Washington Post asked recently: Why doesn’t talk radio get good ratings in Washington, D.C.? Experts offered several reasons why a format that works everywhere else doesn’t work in the nation’s capital. “Political talk radio just hasn’t gotten the same traction here,” opined Jim Farley, programmer for an all-news station. Or maybe it’s because “people in D.C. are smarter” than listeners elsewhere, as the president of WMAL put it. “In Boston, Chicago, even L.A., it’s more emotional,” Chris Berry explained. “In D.C., people really do know the issues.”

Good tries, but not quite correct. The reason talk radio struggles here is the same reason Herbert Hoover shouldn’t have built a palatial Commerce building: This is a company town, and the business is government.

Even the private employers in D.C. are here only because Uncle Sam is. From think tanks to law firms, everyone’s trying to influence Congress, the president or the bureaucracy. Unless, that is, they’re working for the bureaucracy. After all, it’s impossible to live in the D.C. area for long without meeting neighbors and making friends who work low-level jobs in various government bureaus. These people are usually nice enough, but on a large scale they’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Talk radio works everywhere else because, when the host says, “We ought to make the federal government smaller,” many listeners agree. As a Pew survey last fall revealed, “conservatives continue to outnumber liberals by roughly two-to-one (currently 38 percent conservative vs. 19 percent liberal).”

Conservative proposals win elections. On the campaign trail, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich both promised to eliminate the Department of Education. But once in Washington, they failed to do so. Because of that, it still existed for George W. Bush to expand with the foolish “No Child Left Behind.” The size of the Education Department increased 69.6 percent between 2002 and 2004. And rest assured, if anyone ever attempts to cut it back, even to its already bloated 2001 levels, liberals would howl.

Talk radio doesn’t work here for the same reason a radio station in Detroit would fail if it proposed shutting down auto plants: A radio station in a company town can’t tick off employees of that company.

There may be a chance to change the dynamic, though. In the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine, columnist Jonathan Rauch celebrated the fact that the presidential primaries start so early these days. Rauch says that could give a candidate the chance to tell voters who’ll be named to his/her cabinet. “If Giuliani and Clinton, or McCain and Obama, or whoever and whoever, stitched up the nomination in mid-February, they could easily vet and name slates of key appointees in time for the conventions,” Rauch notes.

Well, let’s put that to the test. Any nominee who wants conservative support should vow right now that he won’t fill some of his cabinet positions. He’ll leave, say Education unstaffed. Maybe even a few others. That way, instead of growing from the bottom up, our federal bureaucracy can start shrinking from the top down.

Any takers?