How does responsibility differ from accountability? Simple. Those who make the decisions are responsible in that they were elected for that purpose: They are responsible for making decisions or executing them. They may even take the blame for making bad ones. However, they never really pay the price for those decisions. They never actually suffer the consequences of them. More often than not, they are reelected so they can return to their seats of power and continue making bad decisions. Whose fault is that?
That being said, We the People electing poor representation to government is not a very satisfactory answer to the question: What is the greatest or costliest mistake in modern U.S. History? Ultimately, it is too broad. It means that We are both responsible and accountable for all mistakes. To determine which is the greatest or most costly mistake, We must narrow our vision to one specific mistake.
Rather than belabor you with all the choices that I selected from including diplomacy and wars, legislation, court decisions, I'll just cut to the chase. I propose that our elected representatives made their greatest mistake on our behalf when they allowed public sector employees to unionize. Not too surprisingly, our elected representatives haven't suffered as We the People have. In fact, they have benefited greatly. Public sector unions contribute great sums to the campaign coffers of those who vote them ever higher wages and benefits. It's a vicious, costly cycle that We the People have been paying for. If We looked even close, We might find that the cost to us from the establishment of government unions is greater, far greater than the cost of national defense.
If you're really interested in learning the history and scope of the problem, read How Government Unions Undermine Upward Mobility And What Can Be Done About It written by Carrie Sheffield and published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Rather than reiterate the points made by Ms Sheffield in her essay, I'll focus here on some of the more recent manifestations of the problems caused by government unions.
First and foremost, there's the deficit. We the People are being hit in the pocketbook coming and going. The cost of doing business has risen dramatically in recent years due to over-regulation. Major corporations have been forced to create and staff whole departments just to make reports and file papers with bureaucrats. Small business owners either work late hours and weekends to duplicate this effort or succumb and go out of business. Thus, the Gross Domestic Product is reduced by non-productive/non-profitable work. Tax rates must be raised to maintain ever higher requirements on tax revenues. As the gap grows between tax revenues and government spending, We the People pay again in the depressed value of the dollars We keep.
It might be worth the price (might be) if We had something to show for it. Sadly, We don't. The delivery of government services becomes ever less efficient, effective, and economical as government employees become ever more protected from the consequences of their lethargy. Not only are their jobs secure, but also they can count on ever increasing wages and benefits thanks to the protection of their unions. Need I cite examples?
Consider the Veterans Affairs Administration. It has been in the news for many months as the site of countless scandals involving delayed care and deaths. Despite innumerable reports and protestations of legislative and executive indignation and management, the situation has not only not been remedied, it's gotten worse. Waiting lists and waiting times are growing longer. The most venal culprits causing the problem either go unpunished or are dismissed with large bonuses and the gratitude of the nation.
In her essay, Ms Sheffield proposes some reforms. While it is true that the case study in Wisconsin that she cites does offer some prospect of hope, it seems that attempting to reform government employee unions would be no more effective than attempting to live with cancer by excising only that part of the tumor that you can see. I am becoming more and more convinced that total abolition is the only real answer.
Unions came into existence during the early years of the Industrial Revolution to correct the abuses of business owners, particularly in the case of coal miners. Government workers never really suffered anything even approximating abuse. They already enjoyed near absolute job security and far better retirement and health benefits than most American workers. The average wage of government workers was lower than that for non-government workers because of the benefits and because government workers are not encumbered with the same degree of job performance responsibility as non-government workers. Basically, government workers are not expected to keep costs down or work profitably. They are merely expected to follow directions (government rules and regulations) that provide for every aspect of their work. If a situation arises for which they do not have specific instructions, they are expected to stop and wait for new directions. Civilian workers, on the other hand, must often make decisions, improvise, take risks and take responsibility for them. No government worker would ever be allowed or expected to show such initiative.
Ultimately, much of the exponential rise in the cost of government, as well as the corresponding rise in the national debt as well as the reduction in purchasing power of average Americans, is directly attributable, not to wars and over-reaching legislation, but rather to the inception of and growing costs directly attributable to government unions.