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Big Government Implodes

Big Government Implodes

WSJ
By DANIEL HENNINGER

Mark July 3, 2013, as the day Big Government finally imploded.

July 3 was the quiet afternoon that a deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy announced in a blog post that the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate would be delayed one year. Something about the "complexity of the requirements." The Fourth's fireworks couldn't hold a candle to the sound of the U.S. government finally hitting the wall.

Since at least 1789, America's conservatives and liberals have argued about the proper role of government. Home library shelves across the land splinter and creak beneath the weight of books arguing the case for individual liberty or for government-led social justice. World Wrestling smackdowns are nothing compared with Hayek vs. Rawls.

Maybe we have been listening to the wrong experts. Philosophers and pundits aren't going to tell us anything new about government. The one-year rollover of ObamaCare because of its "complexity" suggests it's time to call in the physicists, the people who study black holes and death stars. That's what the federal government looks like after expanding ever outward for the past 224 years.

Even if you are a liberal and support the goals of the Affordable Care Act, there has to be an emerging sense that maybe the law's theorists missed a signal from life outside the castle walls. While they troweled brick after brick into a 2,000-page law, the rest of the world was reshaping itself into smaller, more nimble units whose defining metaphor is the 140-character Twitter message.

Laughably, Barack Obama tried this week to align himself with the new age in a speech calling yet again for "smarter" government. It requires whatever lies on the far side of chutzpah to say this after passing a 1930s-style law that is both incomprehensible and simply won't work.ObamaCare is turning into pure gravity. Nothing moves.

On July 5, the administration announced into the holiday void that because of "operational barriers" to IRS oversight, individuals would be allowed to self-report their income to qualify for the law's subsidies.

If the ObamaCare meltdown were a one-off, the system could dismiss it as a legislative misfire and move on, as always. But ObamaCare's problems are not unique. Important parts of the federal government are breaking down almost simultaneously.

The National Security Agency has conservative philosophers upset that its surveillance program is ushering in Big Brother. What's more concretely frightening is that a dweeb like Edward Snowden could download the content of the NSA's computers onto a thumb drive and walk out of the world's "most secretive" agency. Here's the short answer: The NSA has 40,000 employees. (Some say it's as high as 55,000, but it's a secret.)

Echoing that, when the IRS's audits of conservative groups emerged, the agency managers' defense was that the IRS is too big for anyone to know what its agents are doing. Thus both the NSA and IRS are too big to avoid endangering the public.

It is hard to imagine a more apolitical federal function than the nation's weather satellites. The ones we have—to predict hurricanes and such—are about to wear out and need to be replaced. Can't do it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Pentagon have been trying to replace the old weather satellites, since 1994. The Government Accountability Office says "we are looking at potentially a 17-month gap" in this crucial weather data. NOAA has good scientists whose bad luck is they work for a collapsing constellation of bureaucracies.

The State Department missed signs of the Arab Spring's insurrections in late 2010 despite warnings from outside groups. Egypt is in flames, in part, because State for years has been mainly a massive, drifting bureaucracy. Little wonder Hillary Clinton spent four years in flight from the place.

Even some conservatives have given up and boarded the death star. The Senate immigration bill throws $46 billion at the Department of Homeland Security to implement a "border surge" strategy that has no chance of achieving its goals. Securing the border is the conservatives' Solyndra.

To call the U.S. federal government a black hole is a disservice to black holes, which have a neutral majesty. Excepting the military's fighting units, the federal government has become a giant slug, like Jabba the Hutt, inert but dangerous. Like Jabba, the government increasingly survives by issuing authoritarian decrees from this or that agency. Barack Obama, essentially a publicist for Jabba's world of federal fat, euphemized this mess Monday as the American people's "democracy."

Thomas Jefferson, who must be rolling in his grave, said the way to ensure good government was to divide it among the many. Some states and cities are indeed reworking their functions in efficient, innovative ways. But Washington is oblivious to life beyond the Beltway.

Those indispensable but dying weather satellites are a metaphor for the U.S. now. Whether ObamaCare or the border fence, Washington is winding down into a black hole of its own making. The debate's over. Liberalism will be swept into this vortex, too.

Write to henninger@wsj.com