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.