Bureaucracy -- the word sounds French because it comes from the French word bureaucratie. Donald Sensing has a great description of the problems currently facing France, and most of them are due to the strangling grip on power that the French government officials wield , and exercise with near autonomy. Rather than serving the people, the French bureaucracy exists to serve itself and the state.
He quotes Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffman, who is generally optimistic about France's future (more-so than I):
There are, of course, huge problems still. There is nothing scandalous about the attachment of the French to the thick social safety net built after World War II by an extraordinary coalition of Gaullists, Socialists, Communists and Christian Democrats. But its financing, in a country whose population is aging, will require either higher taxes — bad for business and unpopular with all — or serious cuts — opposed by almost everyone.
The biggest issue is the reform of the state. It remains a formidable bureaucratic tangle of regulations, led by a very narrow élite educated in a small number of monopolistic grandes écoles. It is true that society has emancipated itself in considerable measure from that spider's web, that the state provides public services of great quality (such as a splendid public transportation system) [surely a great overstatement of social services’ quality in light of 15,000 dead in France from last summer’s heat wave - DS], and that the efforts of the European Commission in Brussels to introduce some competition into national public service are beginning to bear fruit. Nevertheless, the size and habits of the French bureaucracy pose two huge problems. The system of higher education is in many ways perverse (separation between the élitist grandes écoles and overcrowded universities; separation of teaching and research). The other problem is what makes a drastic reform of this system almost impossible: the state is, in fact, colonized by its employees and their unions, who resist change fiercely. A government that confronts them head-on is sure to fail, a government that tries to co-opt them will not get far. Change, here, will come — but slowly.
In America, we still view our nation as an amalgamation of individuals -- America has no meaning or existence apart from you and me. Bu Donald notes that in France, the state is an entity unto itself with its own interests to serve, which may or may not coincide with what the population wants. Rather, the government elite sees its role as forcing what is best onto the populace, who are too base and common to recognize it for themselves.
Whether you're inclined politically left or right, you're probably thinking that that's just the sort of thing we see here in America, but to a lesser degree (vastly less, in my opinion, but still there). When you give power to the government, it starts to take on a life of its own. Because of this tendency, I believe two things are critically important for a successful nation: government must be kept as small as possible, and must remain responsive to the people it serves.
As for the first, I'm a Republican because I think that party is the most inclined towards small government. President Bush isn't exactly an exemplary model, but I'm willing to let some of his more ostentatious spending slide due to the rather precarious nature of the world at this moment. A non sequitur? Perhaps, but there are more important things at the moment than fighting against his ridiculous prescription drug plan. Government should be small, and that means taxes should be low. The less money government has to spend, the less power it has; I'm not about Laffer-optimal taxation, because I don't want to maximize government revenue, I want to minimize it.
Secondly, both parties need to be more responsive to the people. The recent recall in California should stand as a stark reminder to our political class that, no matter how many years you've lived off the public dole, you can be taken down in an instant if you displease us. We can't recall you from every position, but you'd better remember who you're working for. I've been harping on gerrymandering a lot this week, and I think such corrupt districting is currently one of the biggest obstacles to responsive government.
The other major obstacle is our own bureaucracy. It's not as bad as France's disgusting, bloated, job-for-life debacle, but sometimes I'm afraid we're approaching that. Just consider the DMV; the last time I went in there, the lady behind the desk acted like she was doing me a favor for deigning to renew my license. In some sense, it's important for our bureaucracy to be apolitical, but it shouldn't be so independent that our workers are totally unaccountable to the people we elect to represented us. We all know that there's a huge amount of waste in our government structure, and our leaders should have the power to clean house when they need to. I'm convinced that we could eliminate 50%-75% of federal jobs without suffering any reduction of service.
I don't think that America is anywhere near the situation France is in, but I do think we need to be careful. As the French and other Europeans are so eager to remind us, we should be willing to learn from them -- we should learn what not to do. Big, powerful government doesn't work. It looks alluring on paper; many of the "liberals" in this country present some truly appealing ideas, but most of them can never work. Many of the "liberals" in this country know that their overt plans are doomed to fail, but that's fine with them because their real plan is to simply accumulate and wield power. Look to France for the ultimate end of that road -- you've been warned.