The trouble with government, P.J. O'Rourke once observed, is that nobody ever wants to say, "Stick a fork in it—it's done." In support of that thesis Virginia has recently provided Exhibits No. 3,487,912 and 3,487,913.
Exhibit No. 3,487,912: Last week, the state's congressional delegation—both senators and every congressman except Bobby Scott—wrote a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe urging him to set up a task force to address the "growing heroin epidemic in Virginia." Many localities, they note, "are on track to see double the number of heroin overdose deaths over last year."
Let's stipulate that any heroin overdose is horribly tragic and the ideal number of heroin users would be zero. That said, terms like "epidemic" and "double the number" obscure as much as they clarify. It's true that heroin deaths in Virginia have nearly doubled. They have risen from 101 (in 2011) to 197 (in 2013).
That's less than the number who died in 2012, the most recent year available, from intestinal infections (212); septicemia, or blood poisoning (1,305); pneumonia (1,275); kidney failure (1,501); or falling (646). Are these "epidemics" that require special task forces? If not, does heroin?
Local law enforcement isn't so sure. "We are not seeing as much heroin here," Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman told The Roanoke Times. Russell County Sheriff's Office deputy major Bill Watson said the same: Heroin "could be a problem, but it’s not a problem now." Oh.
A sudden growth in drug abuse might justify creating a new task force—if government were ignoring the problem. Is it? Not exactly. The U.S. spends more than $50 billion a year on the war on drugs. Washington has a Drug Control Agency, as well as an Office of National Drug Control Policy (the "drug czar"). And a National Institute on Drug Abuse. And a Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration.
And plenty of other agencies dedicated to other issues that also fight in the war on drugs. The FBI's Organized Crime Division, for instance, necessarily deals with the illegal drug trade. The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency has a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, as well as an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. And so on.
Virginia has—well, let’s see: the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The Governor's Substance Abuse Services Council. Drug courts, and their Virginia Drug Courts Association. The State Police and its Drug Enforcement Section, which includes GIANT—the Governor's Initiative Against Narcotics Trafficking. The State Police's drug enforcement section also participates in "22 multi-jurisdictional task forces throughout the state."
Virginia has 39 community services boards that offer help for drug users. The State Corporation Commission offers discounts on workers' comp premiums to employers that satisfy the requirements of the drug-free workplace program. The public schools have had a Drug Abuse Resistance Education program since 1985. The jails have jail-based substance abuse programs. The—
OK, you get the point. If this gargantuan drug-prevention apparatus has not put a dent in the recent "epidemic" and "doubling" of heroin use, then how likely is yet another task force to do so?
McAuliffe did not immediately respond to the congressional letter, other than to issue a pro forma, anti-heroin statement. But the day before, he did create—this is Exhibit No. 3,487,913—another government board: the Virginia Energy Council, which will "assist in the development and implementation of a cohesive, comprehensive, and aggressive energy strategy for Virginia and deliver recommendations for the Virginia Energy Plan, which will be submitted to the General Assembly on October 1, 2014."
The Energy Council should not be confused with the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy—or the Secretariat of Commerce and Trade, or the Secretariat of Natural Resources, from which the Council will draw its staff. And though it is supposed to "accelerate the development and use of renewable energy resources," it probably won't do so through a program supporting property tax exemptions for solar energy systems, because Virginia already has one. It also isn't likely to propose the creation of a Voluntary Solar Resource Development Fund, or a tax exemption for energy efficient buildings, or a Clean Energy Manufacturing Incentive Grant Program, or a green jobs tax credit—because Virginia already has all of those, too.
Virginia also has a local energy alliance program, an income-tax deduction for energy-efficient products (and a sales-tax holiday for some), a state loan program for renewable-energy equipment, a renewable-energy portfolio standard, a solar-resource development fund, and a variety of local energy-efficiency rebate programs.
If the Energy Council manages to think up some new energy policy or program, it will have to be jammed in the interstices between all the state’s other energy policies and programs. Not to mention all the federal ones, including the countless programs and mandates overseen by the Department of Energy and the EPA.
So what would adding a couple more boxes on the already enormous government organizational chart achieve, other than allowing a few politicos to add bullet points to the campaign brochures? Ask Chris Bailey of Lifehacker.com, who recently wrote about 10 lessons he learned after an intensive year of studying productivity. "Productivity isn’t about how much you produce," he wrote, "it's about how much you accomplish." That’s a lesson Virginia’s political class—and the nation's—has yet to learn.