The Force of Habit

Occasionally, we hear politicians telling us that they will make the government more efficient, more responsive – even smaller.

Sorry folks, none of that is in the cards. The reason is simple, and has been known to the civilized world since Aristotle: it’s called “habits.”

We all have them, and those of the federal bureaucracy are unique.

And they’re all bad.

Once upon a time, federal government “workers” might well have fancied themselves to be well-intentioned public servants.

Well, those days are over.

Today’s bureaucrats have been habituated by the Congress, by presidents, by the courts, and by government unions to consider themselves both significantly superior and uniquely empowered.

As one of them put it over 30 years ago, “these guys think that, when you get a government job, your IQ goes up by 20 points.”

Bureaucrats tell us that they are only doing what they’re told, carrying out federal government policy.

Really? OK, let’s take them at their word: after all, government policy today has at its core only contempt for the taxpayer and hatred of the free citizen.

But wait – are the bureaucrats willing accomplices? Perhaps they’re “just following orders.”

And maybe  our bureaucrats consider themselves “the best and the brightest” – let’s grant them that. But never forget that in 1933, Germany was the best-educated country in the world

What’s So Special About a Bureaucrat?

There are several habits unique to government bureaucrats.

The bureaucrat enjoys hounding others, but he watches his own back with care.

Which means, first and foremost, that the bureaucrat never makes a decision. If it is the right decision, someone else takes the credit. If it is the wrong decision, he must bear the blame.

The solution? Write a memo. Then, hector the citizen.

After all, it’s more fun thank kicking your dog.

He might bite.

How many trees have died, how many hard disks have been wiped, because of this bureaucratic rule of non-responsibility?

Then there is the mutual job preservation society, which guarantees that virtually all workers in the bureaucracy get superlative performance reviews.

Accountability disappears, but pathological behaviors thrive in the federal hive as it inflicts its version of Mao’s “death by 1000 cuts” on the average citizen.

But don’t at least the best among them believe that they are merely following the law?

Only they can say for sure. But the worst of them clearly enjoy the power trip: “I can do this [feel your crotch] anywhere,” TSA agent Christopher Anderson told me last year at Dulles International Airport.

Indeed he can – and that arrogance exemplifies a bureaucratic mentality that has been cultivated over a long period of training, dependency, and habituation.

Moreover, the best president and the best Congress in the world cannot change the Christopher Andersons of the world. The reason is simple: they have acquired, and then digested, bad habits.

And they are ineradicable.


For the answer, we turn to Aristotle.

Learning Bad Habits: A Primer

When I teach the Ethics, I bring a 4”x4” post to class and ask one of the students to pound a nail into it.

A young lady goes first: she strikes a nail a glancing blow, and then makes a direct hit.

“Okay,” I ask, “can you pull it out?”

She grabs it, wiggles it a little bit, and out it comes.

A young man takes over. He strikes three blows and the nail sinks into the wood.

“Okay,” I ask, “can you pull it out?”

It takes a while, but he can pull it out with his hand.

Then the toughest guy in the class drives it in five times. Determined, he manages to pull it out eventually.

“Now hit it 10 times.” He does.

Even with the help of the hammer, he can’t get it out.

The lesson learned? “That nail, folks, is a bad habit. It is so ingrained that even the strongest effort of character and determination cannot change it.”

That is the situation our country faces today in the federal bureaucracy. All the changes in personnel, policy, the Federal Register, and PowerPoint presentations cannot remove the habits of force that have been acquired through years and years of doing the same wrong thing over and over again.

By force of habit, the federal workforce has acquired habits of force that are simply impossible to be expunged. Any fool who dared to try would be faced with lawsuits, appeals, bureaucratic infighting, and more – all designed to stretch out the ordeal until the individual bureaucrat can retire.

Once they do retire, they are shorn of their power. They must act like normal people again. Power has perverted them; only its removal can restore them. In their new homes, they can become good neighbors, good customers, even do-gooders.

It behooves us, therefore, as a community service, vastly to increase the number of those retirees – and, in the spirit of the common good, to do it as quickly as possible.

Well, as Vladimir Lenin properly inquired, “what is to be done?”

For the answer, we turn to Bill Rickenbacker, a true son of liberty who gave us the roadmap some 40 years ago.

Bill Rickenbacker Solves the Bad Habit Riddle

In the 1970s, the primary motivation for working in the federal bureaucracy was simple: you can’t get fired. Back then, as now, economic times were hard, and the attraction of a job for life could not be underestimated.

Rickenbacker observed that the damage – economic, cultural, and social – wrought by the federal bureaucracy amounted to much more than the relatively small cost of salaries and pensions paid by the taxpayer to the federal workforce.

This observation is even more true in our own time.

Rickenbacker’s solution is as brilliant as it is simple: don’t fire the federal bureaucrats. Instead, send them home while paying them their full salaries until their normal retirement date arrives. After that, give them their full pensions and healthcare.

Just take away their power.

The vast majority of those “working” in today’s bureaucracy would accept that offer with alacrity and glee.

Once the federal buildings around the country are vacated, they can be sold – along with all the equipment, furnishings, and the like. All the regulations they enforced can be removed from the Federal Register as well.

At that point, any constitutional funding formerly allocated to those agencies can be forwarded directly to the states.

All this can be done in a matter of weeks, without any fanfare. The usual suspects will chatter, to no avail. The move must be swift and thorough.

And what should be our goal?

The federal government that Bill Rickenbacker criticized in the 1970s, and that Ronald Reagan ran against in 1980, was much smaller than it is today. In fact, my back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that, if the federal budget were cut by 10% per year, it would take 20 years to reduce the budget to its admittedly bloated size in 1980.

No time to waste, my fellow Americans.

Send the bureaucrats home.