Have you ever thought, not merely about the airplane but about whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity? ... In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
Antoine de Saint Exupery Wind, Sand and Stars
The writer of the above was an airline pilot who, for eight years in the late 1920s and early 30s, flew a postal route between Toulouse in southwestern France and Dakar in French West Africa. In the very beautiful book I’ve quoted from above, he wrote about his experiences in early aviation — that and much, much more. “Saint X” (as my French teacher in college, bless her soul, called him) had a remarkable gift of writing passages that remain etched indelibly in the minds of many of his readers, long years after their first exposure, in college, in French, to “The Little Prince” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.”
What he wrote about the engineer’s quest for perfection ending only when design no longer has anything left to strip away, resonates in a way especially applicable to the legislative and executive structures churned out in Washington (or for that matter, in Columbia, S.C.) today.
Simplicity. Brevity. Understandability. Digestibility. These are qualities routinely ignored by the immense bureaucracies that now govern our lives in America. Every walled-in bureaucrat who toils away in some office on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, the State Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the White House Executive Office Building, etc., secretly lusts to hang at least one bulb on the towering Christmas tree his or her agency currently decorates with endless strings of no lights, no illuminations.
Let me state this clearly: Simplicity is next to godliness. And both are disappearing at a frightening pace in the computer-driven world we live in. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is. The digital universe is not inevitable. It is merely irritating and outrageously bland and un-poetic.
The crafters of monstrosities like the 2,700-page Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the even more abominable (no tortured pun intended) nine-million-word-plus U.S. tax code, seem not to know the meaning of the word simplicity. Those who write such confusing nonsense as the two examples cited seem to operate on a guiding principle to let no opportunity pass to add to their work product’s unintelligibility. It’s almost as if they delight in frustrating their bewildered fellow Americans who, under penalty of law, are required to comply with the lawyerly gibberish they crank out.
Who’s really running the ship of state? Is it the people we elect, or the camp followers who accompany them to the seats of power? Was it not a remarkable tip-off when former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “We have to pass this [the Affordable Care Act] so we can find out what’s in it.”
Think of the incredible army of tax lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, “navigators” and other diviners of the Washington crystal ball engaged to interpret the thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations written by faceless zealots to keep not just Obamacare from careening off track, but the very wheels of our increasingly intrusive government turning. Think of the nearly two trillion dollars sucked out of potential U.S. economic growth by the compliance cost of government’s onerous and incomprehensible diktats.
In an incisive article published in the June 19th Wall Street Journal, Niall Ferguson mines this prophetic gem from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “[The regulatory state] rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to be nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
“If that makes you bleat with frustration, there’s still hope,” Ferguson concludes.
I couldn’t have said that better myself.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.