Can Bloomberg Manage America?

Richard Cohen speculates that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg might spend as much as half a billion dollars of his personal wealth on a race for president. He could certainly afford to. His company may be worth as much as $25 billion, and it has recently been reported that he could realize $7 billion from a “leveraged recap” while retaining 70 percent of the company. And a top Republican fundraiser pointed out to me that if you don’t have any fundraising expenses, then half a billion is the functional equivalent of a billion-dollar campaign fund. If a lunatic billionaire could get 19 percent of the national vote by spending $70 million in 1992, how much better could a sane and stable billionaire with ten times that much money do?

Cohen writes that “there is no doubt that Bloomberg has done a terrific job managing New York, and there is no doubt that the federal government is a mismanaged mess.” True enough.

But if anyone thinks that a good manager can make the federal government run like a well-oiled machine, he’s going to be disappointed. In the first place, the federal government is far larger than Bloomberg LP or even the New York City government. It’s not amenable to hands-on management. And more importantly, government failure is systemic. It’s not a product of stupid or lackadaisical presidents or Cabinet secretaries. It results partly from inherent disagreements about what would be good policy; a corporation may have one goal or mission, but a society does not. And if government is supposed to reflect society, then it can only have a clear mission as long as that mission is to protect citizens from rights violations and leave them otherwise free to pursue happiness in their own ways. Once government begins taking on broader duties, citizens will disagree about what it should do.

And then there are the institutional obstacles to lean and effective government. As Milton Friedman told President Bush (pdf) in 2002, “if you spend someone else’s money on someone else, you are not very concerned about how much is spent, or how it is spent.” The problems of incentives, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the concentration of power, and bureaucratic self-interest cannot be solved by a hard-nosed manager who’s good at hiring, firing, and delegating.