What the Federal Government Can Learn from the iPhone

Individual choice trumps central planning.


During the 2008 election, the Obama campaign touted a vision for a more user-friendly federal bureaucracy they called "iPod government." It was one of the many pieces of rhetoric that was unceremoniously discarded once the votes were counted.

But whether they knew it or not, they were onto something. And with today's unveiling of Apple's latest slate of products—including the iPhone 5—it's worth considering what the policymakers in Washington could learn from the gadget mavens in Cupertino.

Few surprises came out of today's highly theatrical Apple announcement. The new devices are sleek, nearly devoid of redundancy, and equally useable by techie fanboys and octogenarian novices alike. In all likelihood, some won't even come with an instruction manual.

Indeed, anyone who has come to swear by an Apple product can attest that the company's devices are, at their best, unobtrusive pieces of technology that enable users to further whatever projects they deem valuable. They're far from perfect, but whether it's finding affordable sushi or composing an atonal symphony, Apple products are there as versatile life-enhancers. What's more, the company's array of products is relatively small. The focus is on getting a few select products right.

This is central to Apple's allure. It treats its customers as capable people, eager to live productive lives of endless variety. No wonder Apple inspires such a cultish following from the likes of both management consultants and installation artists.

Now think of our hydra-headed system of federal laws, regulations, and public programs. Let's start with our tax code, which is notoriously littered with oddball carve-outs. For instance, since 1962 many Americans have been able to deduct clarinet lessons as a medical expense since orthodontists have argued that playing the instrument is therapeutic to children with an overbite. Similarly, whaling captains are eligible for $10,000 in deductions for various whaling-related expenses (nevermind that commercial whaling has been banned for years).

If the tax code was a smartphone, it would have four different slide-out keyboards (to accommodate a range of finger widths), and come in twelve different screen sizes. Oh, and you'd need to spring for professional assistance every time you had to Google something or, you know, make a phone call.

Or look at federally backed job-training programs. A report last year from the Government Accountability Office counted 47 such programs run by 9 different agencies and costing the federal government a total $18 billion a year. You'll excuse job seekers for not quite knowing where to turn to sharpen their skills for the 21st century labor market. Or for opting for none of these programs and going it alone.

Yet another GAO report from this year found plenty more overlap among federal programs. For instance, 15 federal financial literacy programs are run by 13 different agencies with a total price tag of over $30 million. Meanwhile, 209 different programs help support science, technology, engineering, and math education at a cost of $3 billion. Not exactly a streamlined product offering.

From healthcare to education to assistance for the poor, federal policy is characterized by the kind of redundancy and over-specificity that would have sent Steve Jobs into an abusive, expletive-laced rant (one needn't wonder why he never ran for office).

But what does Apple's minimalism have to do with government policy?

A lot, actually. As I mentioned, the best Apple devices are intended as ever-versatile instruments, released into the world to improve lives in ways that Apple's design virtuoso Jonathan Ive or its CEO Tim Cook or even, yes, the late Steve Jobs couldn't have anticipated.

In fact, the company's products seem to embody, in a strange way, Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek's conception of laws as a set of "multi-purpose instruments" which "assists the greatest variety of human purposes."

There's a reason. First, redundant laws, quite simply, are wasteful. As for those laws designed to push us towards one sort of behavior or investment over another, they often serve to close off valuable opportunities, limiting our ability to structure our own lives, follow our own plans, and find our own solutions to problems.

Just think about the countless Americans who were nudged towards buying bigger homes by the mortgage interest deduction, thus contributing to the housing bubble. Absent this policy, many would have invested elsewhere or not borrowed as much—and been better off for it.

Of course, government programs aren't designed from scratch by a Silicon Valley brain trust, so we shouldn't expect our public sector to have the clean lines and seamless user interface of an iPad. But when casting about for sound principles for fashioning public policy, Capitol Hill might consider borrowing from the innovators at One Infinite Loop.

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  1. I’m thinking that the quite restrictive mandates of the App Store don’t fit neatly into this analogy.

    1. My thoughts, too.

      Apple’s core philosophy is that, if they can control everything on every desktop, completely, they can provide a predictable “user experience” and collect a fee every time a user sneezes.

      1. Sounds like the perfect model for government…from the government’s perspective.

        1. colorful communism

    2. I know. Apple is the model for individual choice over central planning? That’s rich. Not as rich as Apple, but still.

      1. You missed the memo. We plan everything in China now.

    3. Not to mention their 30% tax on all digital media sold on native applications. If anything our government is oddly like the iPhone. Capricious rules, highly secretive, highly controlled experience, reliant on the Chinese and willing to use the force of law to take out their competition.

      This is the least self-aware Reason column since the “Olympics are a Capital Triumph” one.

      1. . . . our government is oddly like the iPhone. . .

        All true, but it can’t cost much more than a grand to get out from under an iPhone.

      2. @ Mo:

        As a media developer, I’d challenge you to find a comparable retailer with a markup below 40%. You couldn’t be more wrong about it being a tax, nor a negative quality about Apple’s business practices. 30% is one of the lowest retail markup rates around and one hell of a dynamic place to invest your time and energies as a content creator. Developers aren’t forced to accept Apple’s terms. There are “vibrant” Google and Windows phone market places for you to do business (if vibrant means 2-5% of revenues, with profits hovering around 0%).

        Capricious rules? Like… ?

        Highly secretive? Apple locks the doors? Pulls down the blinds before they whip out their dongs? I think you are misinterpreting/alienated by very high consumer tech media curiosity.

        Highly controlled experience? They list certain universal features, and if a special interest wants special features, they don’t force everyone else to endure their lifestyle preferences. Maybe you want more porn in your title bar? I’m guessing the overwhelming majority of smartphone users don’t want your porn smashed up against their face. It’s Apple’s job to deliver the testicles directly to your mouth?

        How many Americans does Apple employ? They’re trying to hire more –

        Sounds like you just don’t like Apple and want to poop sprinkler orally. In this case I gotta say… total fail. No creativity… Sheryl Crow is at least blaming her tumor on iPhones.

        1. Butthurt Apple fanboy is butthurt.

          1. Android fangurl has no valid retort? Shock.

        2. I’m not talking about the App Store policy, where 30% is a reasonable fee to use their channel. I’m talking about the 30% fee if you buy music or a subscription or a book or something else on an app in their ecosystem. Microsoft doesn’t take a cut when you buy something on iTunes installed on a windows box. The newsstand or supermarket doesn’t get a cut if you use one of the cards in the magazine to get a subscription.

          I didn’t realize that apps being banned because it ‘ridicules public figures‘ counts as porn. There’s this thing called age filters and categories. Not hard to create.

          As for being secretive, you’re the first person I’ve ever heard deny this. Even Apple super-fanboy John Gruber calls them highly secretive and Tim Cook has talked about doubling down on their secrecy.

          I’m actually a fan of their products because they have a clean smooth, painless experience (own iPhone and iPad, typing this on a Macbook Air). That’s superior to the other stuff out there now. However, I’m also aware that tradeoffs exist and that I’m making them.

          1. I Sugarfreed the link.


          2. The 30% is not a fee, just Apple’s retail markup. If an app sells for $1, Apple sends me 70 cents. If I sell an album for $10, Apple sends me $7. Ditto with a ebooks or magazines. They handle all the server costs, data transfer bandwidth, 24/7 accessibility, credit card processing, and a myriad of customer service/support issues. Maybe you can get some of the content elsewhere for the same price or cheaper, but they all have a retail markup. Do you complain about the 70% retail markup to CVS every time you buy toothpaste?

            Microsoft doesn’t get a cut from iTunes on windows sales, because it’s not their store. MS certainly takes their cut on content purchased in any of there stores. The only difference is that you’re not complaining about it.

            Apple doesn’t block you from buying smut on your Apple products, they just don’t want to sell it in their store. Kinda like Taco Bell doesn’t block you from buying fries, they just don’t want to sell them. You might be confusing personal desire with individual liberty.

            John Gruber says a lot of things, it helps him sell the ads and tshirts (no doubt with an ‘evil’ markup). I didn’t deny Apple’s preference for window shades, I asked you why think Apple’s secrecy is a highly negative thing? Who needs to know?

          3. The reason for that other 30% fee is that, without it, there would be a loophole that would cause their whole e-commerce model to collapse. So it’s understandable.

    4. The App Store is like a shopping mall: the whole thing is private property, so they get to set the rules. Some of the rules are no fun and stupid and too restrictive, but on the other hand, the place is clean, you can bring the kids, and you won’t get mugged.

  2. This is central to Apple’s allure. It treats its customers as capable people

    Someone actually wrote this.

    1. Not capable of choosing whether or not they want to see things like porn, of course…

      1. Capable of choosing something other than Apple if they don’t like the experience, which puts Apple miles ahead of government.

        1. That’s a feature of the market, not of Apple’s policies.

    2. Yeah, that’s pretty funny. I’m assuming the writer is an Apple person and is therefore delusional.

  3. Since we’re analogizing smartphones to government, I’m going to embrace the idea that freedom is messy. Which is why I prefer the fun and open chaos of the Android system, versus Apple’s love of central planning.

    Funny, just yesterday I was telling someone that Apple is the Church of Scientology of the tech world. I think the government analogy works a little better.

  4. This is central to Apple’s allure. It treats its customers as capable people, eager to live productive lives of endless variety.

    Right. Well, government (and even less, Obama) would prefer not to treat everybody like that. Remember(and take a cue from The Book Of Tony here): We’re just one microstep from barbarian debauchery and cannibalism if it wasn’t for government, so it is not like they can offer services or goods that will interfere the least with out normal lives and yet make them better. It doesn’t work that way, at least in the minds of the statist fucks that enable government types.

    No, we would need direction, and we would need care – in their minds. You know, like zoo animals. Cradle to grave.

    1. Buddy of mine on the extreme convervative side of the spectrum agrees entirely with that position (we’re all animals and a heavy-handed gov’t is needed to ensure civilization). He gets furious when I point out that liberals also believe this, then says something about a broken clock.

      1. I should point out that he freely admits that it is only the fear of police and prisons which prevent him from raping and murdering on a daily basis. He claims his mere existence proves the necessity of gov’t; if it wasn’t for gov’t, he’d kill everyone who looked at him cross-eyed.

        I said most people don’t rape and kill because they find it inherently wrong. He said that is incorrect; most people do not care, or else there wouldn’t have been all of the shitty things that people did to eachother throughout history. People who claim to follow morality are lying. We’re all just afraid of going to jail.

        Fun guy to have arguments with.

        1. all of the shitty things that people did to eachother throughout history.

          Point out to him that the vast majority of these shitty things were done by or oh behalf of sovereigns/governments of one sort or another.

        2. Jesus. Sounds like someone should shoot him.


          1. He approves of this comment.

            1. You should ask him what happens when guys like him take over the government.

              1. As opposed to guys who think that the only reason people are fat is because we don’t throw them in jail?

  5. The Federal Government should solder its batteries in place?

  6. The idea of a government designed in California and implemented in China should give everyone pause.

  7. Government would be more like an iPhone if it offered services that people want for which they willingly – nay, ENTHUSIASTICALLY – give their money.

    As opposed to being a useless-to-destructive fucking ball and chain that takes money at the end of a gun barrel.

  8. iPod government? I prefer the insurance company/credit card company government. You get to pick your insurance company (Geico, Progressive, AllState, Farmers, etc.), you get to pick your credit card company (Visa, Mastercard,Amex, Discover, etc.), why don’t you get to pick your government (Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, etc.?)

    If 2 people with the same government are involved in a dispute, it’s settled like it is now. If 2 people with different governments are involved in a dispute, the victim’s government decides it, and appeals are made to a neutral government. Victimless crimes would only be prosecuted against someone who belongs to a government that prosecutes vices.

    Taxes (and entitlements) would be separate for each government.

  9. I have owned both Android and iOS (Apple) phones. I currently own a 32GB iPhone 4, which I got for $99 :D. The android phones are for the more tech savvy. They arent as simple and straightforward as Apple products, but offer the ability to customize more. They operate like a PC. My main complaint with my Android Galaxy was the android music market. iTunes and the app store are really straightforward and simple, which does mean less apps. I had an Ipod, which I sold, to help pay for the phone. I didnt want to purchase all the music again, so I decided on getting my current iPhone. Its reliable and the Retina screen is fantastic.

    Android is drastically improving though. I own one of the Samsung tablets (that stole Apple technology), and the introduction of Google Play is a real plus. But the screen still isnt on par with Retina, which IMO, is the best in the industry.

    Anyway, thats my two cents. So screw you, obnoxious Android fanboys, who hate people with different opinions.

    1. And a large percentage of Apple naysayers I talk to solely hate apple for making their products in China…

      1. Which is total irony because which smartphones are they using not manufactured in China? I think it’s been decades since any phones have been manufactured in the US. Were commercial cordless phones ever made in the US?

  10. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one guffawing at the idea of Apple products as libertopia. Being free to pick from a pre-selected number of variables that are all tightly controlled by the manufacturer of the product is a lot more like government as we have it today than it is libertopia.

  11. Well…actually the iPhone kicks ass because it has a strong “central government,” not weaker. Specificity is the point, at least in terms of setting up the basic environment.

    $200 bucks and dough for the service buys an awesome experience for everyone who picks one up. It works the same for everyone. The weakest experience you can have is still awesome. People with more money can go a bit more crazy and buy all the apps they want. (Or whatever…just following your metaphor.)

    It’s like why Xbox Live works so well. The parameters of the environment are built around customer convenience. Developers must all follow very, very specific rules when developing for the platform. Some (especially Electronic Arts in the case of Xbox Live) stayed away for a long time because they didn’t want to adhere to Microsoft’s standards.

    So a weak government is more like, say, a shitty clam phone. Or a Limux for a technophobe.

  12. Assume everything you said is true. Why do minorities still vote overwhelmingly for democrats?

  13. If they don’t ban it or shut down distribution or anything, then pontificate away. I do wish I had got to see Mohammed’s face on South Park though, although Mohammed in a bear costume is probably funnier.

  14. Apple and the federal government learn a lot from each other and the latest iteration of the iPhone5 is just proof.
    1: Every time we turn around, each are getting more powerful.
    2: They continue to get larger.
    3: Each loves centralizing their power and forces people to use only them for basic needs.
    4: They are both run by rich, white dudes.

    1. Except that new iPhones are better than the previous ones, but cost the same. Whereas the federal government keeps getting more expensive, but worse.

  15. Apple’s falling behind the various Android phone makers when it comes to hardware specs. And the newer Android versions are quite user-friendly and more flexible than iOS. I owned a iPhone 3GS and loved it before I went to Android, but Apple’s still offering basically the same experience on its newer phones several years later.

  16. Here are More characteristics, novel style,varieties,and good quality low price

  17. So you want to say that this time we need slim and fast government.

  18. “It treats its customers as capable people, eager to live productive lives of endless variety.”

    Ummmm….hello? Earth to Reason?

    Apple is the exact opposite of this. It puts its customers in a Walled Garden and protects them from all evil as it hand-holds them through simple-to-use programs. Android is the libertarian, not Apple.

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