Rube Goldberg is one of the only people in human history to have the rare distinction of his name being an official definition in the dictionary.
In our popular culture, it has become commonplace to use names of celebrities to illustrate certain actions or behaviors, but Rube Goldberg is the only name canonized as an adjective. A Rube Goldberg is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary.”
Oddly, many of us read this definition and believe that it could aptly depict the operation of government. In fact, in many instances, it is hard to describe many government actions without somehow mentioning the overly-complex or interconnected policies that government uses to accomplish particular objectives.
Mr. Goldberg, if he were alive today, would likely shun the association of his name with big government. The reason that Rube Goldberg is an adjective in the dictionary is because Mr. Goldberg, as a cartoonist, was known for his drawings of overly-complex machines performing simple tasks to illustrate our absurd preoccupation with technology and tendency toward complexity. All of these drawings, though never built by Goldberg himself, reveal a unique creativity and flair for detail on the part of Mr. Goldberg whereas many government actions reveal an incoherent incompetence in its own practice of the Rube Goldberg method.
One only needs to look at our patchwork of multiple, duplicative federal, state and local government programs promoting such nebulous causes as “economic development” or “community reinvestment” to see the Rube Goldberg definition come alive.
A more recent example is the implementation of ObamaCare, much of which, Texas overwhelmingly rejected. A morass of complex, multi-level government programs promising health insurance coverage for different swathes of the population based upon program qualification, employment status, and income.
The implications of complexity are two-fold. First, complexity is the enemy of transparency. It is very difficult for citizens to direct their objections to government action if the jurisdiction of that action is unclear. Who is held accountable for programs that are executed in-part by both the state and federal government?
Politicians will rarely come-clean on this point.
If a federal program is administered at the state level, it is very easy for state-level policy makers to point the blame at Washington, and federal legislators to place blame on Austin. The real losers, of course, are you and I.
Second, complexity empowers highly-specialized, well-funded organized interests to carve-out special deals, and extract rents from the political process. Average citizens are unlikely to personally investigate government policies or programs that misallocate resources and have a diffuse cost to them, however, small, organized interests are highly incentivized to chase concentrated benefits offered by big government through lobbying elected officials.
Ultimately, this system is a symptom of big government. State largesse at the cost of taxpayers empowers the type of behavior citizens detest in the political sphere, but with so many moving parts, average citizens may become overwhelmed with the complexity of government. With an unclear target at which to direct a citizen’s ire, a focused desire for action becomes a diffuse resentment, cynicism and mistrust toward government in general.
This is not just a problem in our federal and state governments, but permeates our cities and schools. Try being a parent wanting to pop in on your child’s classes and see the hoops which must be needlessly jumped through.
Or consider the tangled web of allowances and disjointed rationales that forbid shoppers from getting plastic bags when they buy groceries, but allows newspapers to still be dispensed in disposable plastic bags.
Ask a contractor about the dizzying array of forms and bureaucracies with which they must comply before building a new home.
As taxpayers, we must expect our citizen-legislators to unravel our Rube Goldberg government, and replace it with one that is comprehensible to, and therefore reviewable by, the people.
Though many of our elected officials may not have had a hand in creating complexity in policy, they will be responsible for continuing it if they don’t take action.