Bureaucrats defend themselves against proposed reductions in what they believe they have coming to them by immediately threatening to close down the most popular and/or most vital service they provide. The US Park Service became famous for it and gave the phenomenon its name through its habit of immediately closing down the immensely popular Washington Monument whenever a government shutdown occurred or threatening to close it down when budget cuts were discussed. It’s a species of blackmail, simple to operate, but even simpler to shut down, if you understand it and have the guts and the foresight to prepare.
All government services provide various levels of benefit to the public, from essentials like police protection and national defense down to museums on the history of condiment and bridges to nowhere. At the same time they distort, to a greater or lesser degree the private sphere. Sometimes this is a net good (police departments distorting the private gang system) and other times it’s not so good (we’ve yet to recover from disruptive urban renewal bulldozing of black neighborhoods in the 20th century). All these activities have to be funded by some sort of tax or fee and the taxes too have various levels of pain and benefit associated with them. The taxes also distort the private sphere (sales taxes suppress consumption, inheritance taxes suppress thrift, luxury taxes shift buying yachts to Canada).
It’s perfectly possible for any individual and for our society in general to list out taxes and spending, from least justifiable to most in two lists. Politicians occasionally do this and try to reign in various forms of government stupidity. The Washington Monument Syndrome consists of bureaucrats taking threatened spending cuts and applying the cuts to the wrong end of the list at key moments before there is a popular consensus on cutting spending, disrupting spending control plans.
The solution to this syndrome is simple, ban it. Remove civil service protection from government workers who engage in the practice. Follow through by getting these blackmailers out of government service when they try their tricks anyway.
We need to change the sequence of events so that the consensus of what’s most valuable is arrived at first. Then when stark economic reality shows up and revenues aren’t there to cover expenses, we already know where all the cuts would land. Bureaucrats who significantly deviate off the list and purposefully pick painful targets for cuts will be exposed for what they have always been: saboteurs of the will of the people, emotional blackmail artists holding popular programs hostage.
Ideally you would develop the cut lists in good times as an exercise in civic responsibility and first execute the list in bad times so spending cuts do the least harm and tax cuts the most good. As a political reality, things are never that neat. Good and bad times are never universal. Probably the best time to do it is in the honeymoon phase of our next Democrat president, when the media’s in the tank and blowing kisses at the new administration. It gives the opposition something to do and answers the charge of “how to pay for” tax cuts. The people decide what they want and the government organizes and gives voice to their sometimes contradictory desires.
It also puts the shoe on the other foot in terms of government economic analysis. Static analysis of tax cuts, inaccurately taking into account their growth effects, would lead to steeper cuts in spending than necessary. Besides being economically illiterate (which it always was), that sort of analysis would become a politically perilous thing to do because it would lead to more people losing services.
Another follow on effect is an opportunity for privatization. Certain services will lose their secure funding, and become episodic. We’ll fund them in good times but they’ll repeatedly face the chopping block in bad times. Private philanthropy could step in and ensure steady funding through an endowment so the job gets done without this government spending yo-yo. This splits the actual “bleeding heart liberals” off the socialist coalition as it becomes clear that sometimes shrinking government is a better way to actually get something done for the poor and the powerless.