John Carmack on 10-28-2010
Almost everything that I write publicly is about technical details in software or aerospace, and the points are usually not very contentious.† Iím going to go out on a limb today and talk about a much more banal topic -Ė government.† This is sort of an open letter to my mother and stepfather, who are intelligent people, but we donít see eye to eye on political issues.† A couple brief conversations a year during visits doesnít really establish much, and I have wanted to make a more carefully considered set of points.
I had nearly disqualified myself from discuss politics by not bothering to cast a vote for almost 20 years after I was legally able to.† I was busy.† I paid millions of dollars of taxes without any dodges, and just focused on my work.† Listening to political speeches full of carefully calculated rhetoric is almost physically painful to me, and I diligently avoided it.
A couple things slowly brought me around to paying more attention.† A computer game company doesnít need to have much to do with the government, but a company that flies rocket ships is a different matter.† Due to Armadillo Aerospace, in the last decade I have observed and interacted with a lot of different agencies, civil servants, and congressmen, and I have collected enough data points to form some opinions.† The second thing that has changed for me is becoming a father; with two young sons, I think more about how the world might look in twenty or thirty years when they are adults.
I am an optimist on almost all fronts.† Throughout history, there have always been those that argue that the world is going to hell, yet here we are, better off than any previous generation.† Not only are things pretty damn good, but there is a lot of positive inertia that makes it likely that things will continue to† improve for quite some time.† We arenít balanced at a precipice, where the result of any given election can pitch us into darkness.
However, trends do matter.† Small, nearly painless losses accumulate over the years, and the world can slowly change into something you donít want while you werenít paying attention.† It doesnít take a cataclysmic crash, just a slow accretion of over regulation, taxation, and dependency that chokes the vibrant processes that produce wealth and growth.† Without growth, you get a zero sum game of fighting over the pie that breeds all sorts of problems in government and society.
My core thesis is that the federal government delivers very poor value for the resources it consumes, and that society as a whole would be better off with a government that was less ambitious.† This is not to say that it doesnít provide many valuable and even critical services, but that the cost of having the government provide them is much higher than you would tolerate from a company or individual you chose to do business with.† For almost every task, it is a poor tool.
So much of the government just grinds up money, like shoveling cash into a wood chipper.† It is ghastly to watch.† Billions and billions of dollars.† Imagine every stupid dot-com company that you ever heard of that suckered in millions of dollars of investor money before leaving a smoking crater in the ground with nothing to show for it.† Add up all that waste, all that stupidity.† All together, it is a rounding error versus the analogous program results in the government.† Private enterprises canít go on squandering resources like that for long, but it is standard operating procedure for the government.
Well, canít we make the government more efficient, so they can accomplish its tasks for less, or do more good work?† Sure, there is room for improvement everywhere, but there are important fundamental limits.† It is entertaining to imagine a corporate turnaround expert being told to get the federal house in shape, but it canít happen.† The modern civil service employment arrangement is probably superior to the historic jobs-as-political-spoils approach, but it insulates the workforce from the forces that improve commercial enterprises, and the voting influence of each worker is completely uncorrelated with their value.† Without the goal and scorecard of profit, it is hard to even make value judgments between people and programs, so there are few checks against mounting inefficiency and abject failure, let alone evolution towards improvement.
Even if you could snap your fingers and get it, do you really want a razor sharp federal apparatus ready to efficiently carry out the mandates of whoever is the supreme central planner at the moment?† The US government was explicitly designed to make that difficult, and I think that was wise.†
So, the federal government is essentially doomed to inefficiency, no matter who is in charge or what policies they want it to implement.† I probably havenít lost too many people at this point Ė almost nobody thinks that the federal government is a paragon of efficiency, and it doesnít take too much of an open mind to entertain the possibility that it might be much worse than you thought (it is).
Given the inefficiency, why is the federal government called upon to do so many things?† A large part is naked self interest, which is never going to go away -- lots of people play the game to their best advantage, and even take pride in their ability to get more than they give.
However, a lot is done in the name of misplaced idealism.† It isnít hard to look around the world and find something that you feel needs fixing.† The world gets to be a better place by people taking action to improve things, but it is easy for the thought to occur that if the government can be made to address your issue, it could give results far greater than what you would be able to accomplish with direct action.† Even if you knew that it wasnít going to be managed especially well, it would make up for it in volume.† This has an obvious appeal.
Every idealistic cry for the government to ďDo SomethingĒ means raising revenue, which means taking money from people to spend in the name of the new cause instead of letting it be used for whatever purpose the earner would have preferred.
It is unfortunate that income taxes get deducted automatically from most peopleís paychecks, before they ever see the money they earned.† A large chunk of the population thinks that tax day is when you get a nice little refund check.† Good trick, that.† If everyone was required to pay taxes like they pay their utilities, attitudes would probably change.† When you get an appallingly high utility bill, you start thinking about turning off some lights and changing the thermostat.† When your taxes are higher than all your other bills put together, what do you do?† You can make a bit of a difference by living in Texas instead of California, but you donít have many options regarding the bulk of it.
Also, it is horribly crass to say it, but taxes are extracted by the threat of force.† I know a man (Walt Anderson), who has been in jail for a decade because the IRS disagreed with how his foundations were set up, so it isnít an academic statement.† What things do you care strongly enough about to feel morally justified in pointing a gun at me to get me to pay for them?† A few layers of distance by proxy let most people avoid thinking about it, but that is really what it boils down to.† Feeding starving children?† The justice system?† Chemotherapy for the elderly?† Viagra for the indigent?† Corn subsidies?
Helping people directly can be a noble thing.† Forcing other people to do it with great inefficiency?† Not so much.† There isnít a single thing that I would petition the federal government to add to its task list, and I would ask that it stop doing the majority of the things that it is currently doing.† My vote is going to the candidates that at least vector in that direction.