We used to have an expression, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…?”
You don’t hear it put that way as often these days since we haven’t been back in over forty years.
Nonetheless it’s a fair question.
The United States put no less than a dozen men on the moon in six successful landings between the years 1969 and 1972.
Over a period of 10 years starting in 1904 the United States moved several mountain’s worth of earth and rock to build the Panama Canal, the largest engineer project in history.
In 1935 the Hoover Dam, the largest concrete structure ever built, was completed two years ahead of schedule within budget.
But in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” which to date has absorbed resources equivalent to several projects of that magnitude.
One has to notice that poverty is still with us though we could have just handed the poor the money spent on them and created the largest class of idle rich in the world.
More recently it’s taken longer than any of those engineering projects to fill a hole in the ground left by the wreckage of the Twin Towers.
And currently we’re watching, with either horrified fascination or smug I-told-you-so attitudes the collapse of an attempt to provide a service that’s been on the market for generations to every man, woman and child in the country.
So if we could put men on the moon, dig the Panama Canal and build the Hoover Dam why can’t we eliminate poverty, educate everybody to a decent and reasonable standard, and get everybody an affordable health insurance policy?
Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen reasons.
One, the great engineering projects of the 20th century were accomplished by well, engineers. People who tackled concrete problems with factors that could be quantified: amount of matter to be moved, strength of materials, rates of heating, cooling, drying etc.
Two, the organization of the projects was put into the hands of businessmen. Men with experience in the private sector where failure meant losses or bankruptcy and success produced great wealth. Men who’d already organized large-scale enterprises and had the skill and confidence to take on even larger projects.
Three, there was strict accountability for cost overruns and failure to complete assigned tasks on time. And it must be said, run with a certain hard-headed ruthlessness. More than 100 men died building the Hoover Dam, and when a strike was called the project managers stopped construction and began the process of replacing the men until the strikers agreed to return to work.
In contrast the idealistic and well-meaning government projects to accomplish All Good Things these days are conceived by social scientists and managed by bureaucrats.
Though I say it who am one, social scientists deal with human variables which unlike steel and concrete, have minds of their own. They tend to engage in a lot of wishful thinking and airy speculation that goes unchecked by reality.
As a discipline social science was originally intended to be descriptive, not an engineering technology for humanity.
Plus the scale of what the government of the United States is trying to do is staggering.
The national government is trying to create programs to administer services for a diverse population of 316 million people living on 3.79 million square miles, using a top-down, one-size-fits-all, my-way-or-the-highway model of organization.
This somehow seems to escape those who admire the accomplishments of European countries such as Sweden, even as the European model is unravelling.
As an old political science professor of mine put it, “How hard is it to govern a country of nine million blond, blue-eyed Lutherans?”
And bottom line, there’s an old adage in business that we’ve forgotten about when we abandoned the notion of a government strictly limited in its functions and powers.
If you try to do everything, you wind up doing nothing well.