Ken Plum: The Circumlocution Office

Cynics of government will find a delight in reading Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, especially Chapter 10 “Containing the Whole Science of Government.”

“The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office…”

Campaigning against government’s size, reach and costs has become a popular political strategy. Certainly utmost care must be given to keeping government in check and to limiting governmental functions to those things that cannot be done best by oneself or the private sector. The zeal to cut back government can lead to over-simplification of the purpose and functions of agencies of government by proponents and critics. For example, in Virginia the Governor’s Commission on Government Reform has made dozens of recommendations for downsizing government. One proposal would get rid of the Rail Advisory Board made up of businesspersons with expertise in rail issues who advise the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation on these matters and who serve without compensation. Supposedly the Rail Advisory Board duplicates the work of the Commonwealth Transportation Board that has no one with rail expertise on it. Savings to the Commonwealth: zero. The Board has no staff assigned to it. Loss to the Commonwealth: substantial loss of expertise it gets for free. The only winners are politicians who say that they voted to reduce the size of government.

The most recent federal elections produced many new officeholders who promise government reform. But as Dickens went on to write, “It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering how not to do it. It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn’t been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentlemen in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn’t been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, how it was not to be done.”

Know an office of circumlocution in Virginia? If so, let me know the name of it (e-mail me at kenplum@aol.com), and I will see that something is done about it.

Column by Ken Plum


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