Sarah S. Elkind: The Allure of an Inefficient Government

We welcome a guest post today from Sarah S. Elkind, author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. In the book, Elkind focuses on five Los Angeles environmental policy debates between 1920 and 1950, investigating how practices in American municipal government gave business groups political legitimacy at the local level as well as unanticipated influence over federal politics. In this guest post, she argues that although Americans often talk about a need for smaller, more efficient government, in practice, we prefer a little inefficiency if it means we can help shape the policy.


Recently, President Obama announced his desire to reorganize the executive branch by “eliminating duplication, waste, and inefficiencies.” This announcement reiterates a theme of the “Accountable Government Initiative” updated last June. Last summer, the Obama administration highlighted duplication in federal education and transportation initiatives. Last month, Obama urged Congress to give him the authority to consolidate the dispersed federal supervision of business and trade into “one more efficient agency to promote competitiveness, exports and American business.” This plan, he hopes, will make it easier for American business owners to find federal assistance and services, and will make government less opaque and byzantine.

Most presidents in the twentieth century have had the authority to reorganize the executive branch. But, as the White House noted in February, that authority has not always yielded dramatic change. Past re-organization initiatives often failed; “beltway politics and power struggles . . . prevented meaningful consolidation” of federal agencies. But “beltway politics” are not the only barrier to efficiency in government. Despite what they say, the American people have long preferred an inefficient federal government that they could shape rather than an efficient government that they could not.

In 1950, President Harry Truman briefly contemplated reorganizing federal water resources management. This effort was, at least theoretically, far simpler than the reorganization that the Obama administration contemplates. At the time, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation spent billions of dollars a year on dams, canals, and flood control structures at the behest of communities all over the country. Under pressure from their constituents, Congress approved these projects even when they had no clear standards to evaluate the need for or benefit from them. Truman faced increasing pressure to curb wasteful spending, but faced the ire of congressional delegations and their constituents when he rejected any specific project.

Like the Obama administration, Truman’s President’s Water Resources Committee began their work with a comprehensive survey of stakeholders and experts. Then, they proposed something radical: replacing the “patchwork of plans by separate agencies for separate purposes” with a network of regional agencies that would review and coordinate all river development, whether federal or local, public or private.

This proposed reorganization of water policy generated an immediate furor. Western irrigators objected to new rules that would have eliminated the subsidies that gave them such an edge over their eastern competitors. Power companies called regional coordination socialism, and warned against government competition with private enterprise on American rivers.

But the idea that really defeated government reorganization in this case was the widespread realization that the regional committees, by ensuring that all water projects made economic sense for the nation, would make it more difficult for local communities to secure the federal spending that they felt they needed. The waste and inefficiencies that inflated federal spending in 1950 were the very things that created opportunities for local influence on the federal government. Given the choice between a leaner federal government and a responsive federal government, most Americans chose the responsive, inefficient, uneconomical model.

Today, Americans—no matter how conservative—still consider wasteful only those programs they do not use. They still expect lavish federal assistance in emergencies. They still pillory Washington as unresponsive and out-of-touch. Together, these demands suggest that most Americans still expect local preferences to shape federal policy, in spite of the inherent inefficiencies of such an arrangement. Does this mean that the Obama administration’s efforts at creating leaner business programs are likewise doomed? Not necessarily. But it does suggest that the perpetual national chorus demanding a smaller, more efficient federal government ought to be regarded with serious skepticism.

Sarah S. Elkind is associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at San Diego State University. She is author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.