"We the People" as the Sorcerer's Apprentice

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[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]

"We the People" as the Sorcerer's Apprentice

I think everybody recalls the scene in Walt Disney’s FANTASIA where Mickey Mouse works as an apprentice to a wise old sorcerer. The action in this sequence blends perfectly with Paul Dukas’s tone poem of the same name: tasked with mundane chores such as hauling buckets of water to fill a large tub, Mickey gets an idea. After the sorcerer retires for the night, Mickey imitates his master and brings a broom to life that sprouts arms and proceeds to lug the water buckets in for Mickey. All goes well until the tub is full and Mickey realizes that he does not know how to stop the broom. The broom is relentless in its mission and even when Mickey chops the broom into splinters, each piece comes to life and carries in even more buckets until a flood ensues. The old sorcerer is awakened by the commotion and in a wave of his arms sets everything right.

We can use this ironic little tale as an allegory for a number of situations in this world. For our purposes here, let’s think of Americans collectively as the sorcerer’s apprentice, and the broom as the government we have empowered. The buckets hauled in by the broom don’t contain water but thousands of endless regulations. Alas, there is no sorcerer who can appear and say, “Stop!” What were our Founding Fathers thinking when they created such a system that would work on “auto pilot” and never be subject to direct control? The short answer is that the Founding Fathers didn’t do this. Working in government was supposed to be about as attractive as serving on the board of a homeowners association (HOA for short) today. 

In both cases, serving has little or no incentive other than a sense of civic responsibility and obligation. There is no compensation, one serves on one’s own time in addition to working their day job, so as a result business tends to be taken care of as quickly and as efficiently as possible so one could return to their day job or leisure time, if any. And vacancies often go begging because individuals decline serving because they “don’t have the time,” not with earning a living and family obligations. It is worth noting that Alexander Hamilton had to step down as the first Secretary of the Treasury in order to return to his day job, i.e., a law practice, to pay his bills. Thomas Jefferson died in debt and sold off parcels of his land to keep his head above water financially. Originally, you didn’t make money working for Uncle Sam, it cost you money.

If I might carry the analogy of an HOA a step further, imagine that board members were compensated for their time, well compensated to such a degree that it became their day job. Would vacancies go begging then? Not likely, in fact there would be intense competition to secure one of these positions, especially when board members also receive great health care coverage and generous retirement benefits. Do you think business would be taken care of quite as efficiently? Would new issues be discovered that required the board’s attention and study? Would the HOA fees start increasing? I could go on with the analogy but no doubt you have picked up that the HOA is Congress along with the dozens of federal agencies that crank out those endless buckets of water, I mean regulations.

Let me ask a basic but provocative question: how many laws and regulations does this country need? Is there a limit? Should there be a limit? Take any industry or profession, including funeral service. How many regulations are sufficient to ensure that the public is protected from dishonest or incompetent practitioners? The real world answer is that there seems to be no limit, as long as people are paid to create them. I once contacted several automobile trade associations asking if anybody had a complete listing of all the federal laws and regulations that specifically applied to their members. I was told that there was no list but if there were, it would be enormous with new additions all the time. Have cars, building them or driving them, changed that much over the last century that we’ve had them? After all this time, shouldn’t we have reached a point where we’ve nailed down the safety concerns to protect the public?

I suspect that if an HOA was in charge of automobile regulation, we would have reached the saturation point decades ago with only an occasional tweaking to account for a new development (i.e., texting while driving). Instead we have set up a structure peopled with career employees (ever notice that few members of Congress leave voluntarily?) whose raison d’etre for existence is to crank out new laws because that’s what they’re paid to do. But wait - we don’t pay the members of a fire department only when they go out on a call. And nobody suggests abolishing the fire department because they only have a few calls a week.

So why do the members of Congress feel compelled to crank out a plethora of new legislation? Because they have convinced many of us (the sorcerer’s apprentices, remember) that we need these new laws – all of them, all the time.  How did this happen? Let’s just say that Lincoln was wrong when he said that you can’t fool all the people all the time. You don’t have to do that in order to establish the Sorcerer’s Apprentice-type of government we now have. You only need to – as Lincoln admitted – fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. Why? Since no politician needs 100 percent of the vote to be elected, just a majority or even a plurality (i.e., less than a majority but more than any other candidate receives).

I dislike criticizing anything unless I can make a constructive suggestion, but in this case I’m stumped. Occasionally, the President will launch a “reducing government” initiative – remember Bill Clinton’s “Reinventing Government” program?   The exercise proved that the system can be reined in but it requires a consistent, aggressive and ongoing application over the long term that our politicians have little incentive to pursue.  The problem can be explained as simply as asking what should Mickey have done when that broom got out of control? My guess is that he could have called in Goofy to assist but that probably wouldn’t have helped much.  We pretty much have the same option right now.