America’s Political Decay

UnknownA favorite book of mine is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992). He argued that centuries of ideological conflict had essentially ended with the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets — because they fulfill deeply felt needs for self-realization and dignity. A beautiful story.

Unknown-1Not so fast, says . . . Francis Fukuyama, in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay. Not that we’re going back to tyranny or socialism. But there’s trouble in paradise, and it’s right here in River City (America), poster boy for the political decay of the title.

Our political divide is between government lovers and haters – big government “progressives” versus small government conservatives. Yet the size and scope of government is not the whole story; quality matters. Big government wouldn’t be so bad if it were good government. imagesBut what gets lost between the two camps is that, as Fukuyama explicates, America’s quality of government has deteriorated steadily and markedly over the last half century.

Why? Ironically, a big factor is the distrust of government built into America’s DNA, which actually makes it hard for government to function well (thus fueling more distrust). Born of revolt against an imperious king, we created a cat’s cradle of checks and balances. That was fine as long as government didn’t do very much. But as its remits proliferated in the modern era, so have the societal interests wanting a say and making demands. The result is what Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy” – a system with so many points where one force can block others that meaningful action becomes impossible.Unknown-2

A related problem is that, by way of example, the relatively few farmers who gain greatly from farm subsidies will fight hard for them, while the mass of consumers and taxpayers, each harmed only a little, do nothing. Bad programs become impervious to change because someone always benefits.

Unknown-3Also, things weren’t too bad when one party had clear dominance and could, within limits, work its will. But now America is closely riven between two parties, each more ideologically cohesive than ever and ruled by activists seeing the other as satanic. Forget about conciliation and compromise.

Distrust of government furthermore leads us to circumscribe the actions of bureaucrats by a welter of rules, curbing their discretion. This produces exactly what we hate – a bureaucratic bureaucracy so tangled in overly complex red tape that common sense is lost.

images-1The U.S. Forest Service illustrates the syndrome. Fukuyama discusses how it began as a model for effective government during the Progressive era, led by the great reformer Gifford Pinchot. But gradually its mission got confused by layers of congressional mandates (often contradicting each other) and submerged under increasingly inflexible administrative procedures; all worsened by pressures from disparate interest groups with conflicting agendas. Our guide on our recent Yosemite tour remarked that the Forest Service doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing anymore. (See also my post about the TSA, whose mission quickly degenerated into one of following dumb procedures rather than actually targeting threats.)

Unknown-4Then there’s something unique to America. Our separation of powers gives a bigger role to courts than in any other country. This has made us peculiarly a nation of lawyers and litigation; exacerbated by legislation that often effectively delegates policy initiatives to implementation through litigation by private parties. (A good example, not mentioned by Fukuyama, is the Americans With Disabilities Act. Lawyers are a major interest group.) This is cumbersome, costly, and opaque, not very efficacious, and lacking in democratic accountability. No other country operates like this. They think it’s bonkers.

All these factors lead Fukuyama to deem America an outlier on the spectrum of difficulty of decision making. We have the most rigid, ineffectual, and reform-proof governmental model of any advanced democracy. This is why so many problems cry out for action – crumbling infrastructure, the immigration mess, and our glide path toward fiscal ruin, to name a few – but nothing can get done. (See my review of That Used to Be Us.)

Is there any hope of fixing this? No. (Sorry – I am an optimist, but a rational one.) Fukuyama pretty much agrees. Americans revere our constitution but frankly, while it worked great for most of our history, now it’s broken. But given that reverence, radical change (like switching to a parliamentary type system where government is much more able to accomplish things*) is inconceivable. (Yet a conceivable and important reform would be to eliminate the Senate filibuster rule and consequent need for 60 votes, not in the Constitution.)

For all I’ve written here, America’s saving grace is that government isn’t everything. Thank God for the private sector. Unknown-5This country’s dynamism is rooted in the energies and imaginations of its people, finding ways of getting on with things, regardless of bad government. Fukuyama, in the end, recognizes this; and moreover concludes by saying that despite the problems of democratic government, it still feeds the basic human hunger for agency – control over our lives. If government transmogrifies into controlling too much**, the remedy isn’t authoritarian rule, which controls even more; and those countries retaining it are still on the wrong side of history.

I can only sadly shake my head when people blithely talk of turning over yet more responsibilities, like health care, to government. “Progressives” never seem to learn from how often government tramples their professed values. There’s a wide gap between their lofty ideal of government and its reality.

* It does work well with a strong two-party system like Britain’s; but with fractured politics like Israel’s, not so much.

** I recently attended a talk about negotiating the bureaucratic gauntlet to move a patient from hospital to long term care. I asked, when and how did this stop being the exclusive province of family members? “I don’t know,” the speaker said, “but it isn’t right.”

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4 Responses to “America’s Political Decay”

  1. Lee Says:

    I agree with you and Winston Churchill that democracy and democratic governments are the worst. But as Churchill might inquire, what better alternatives are there? Consider your example of farmers or other special interests who use big government to their advantage. Would these special interests disappear if big government does? Maybe your answer is yes, but I say no; they will still be just as greedy / hubrisful / (insert your own positive or negative value adjective for looking out for oneself). The difference will be which battle field the action will take place on. If it is not lobbying the Senate, where will the battle field be? The biggest worry is that it will be an actual battle field, but there are other unappealing possibilities. If you think the players will all suddenly be well behaved capitalists or that conciliation and compromise will suddenly rule the day, you are dreaming. Within government itself, if the power hungry senators are not senators, would they instead be generals?

    Don’t get me wrong; it is an absolute must that we be eternally vigilant as we try to control this democracy of ours. We can even try changes like a parliamentary system or having no filibuster rule (or no Senate, which is not proportional representation), but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    The difference between more versus less democratic countries is how much of the society the government must be responsive to. See this past post: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/the-dictators-handbook/
    A dictatorship can ignore the demands of farmers for subsidies.

  3. Lee Says:

    The dictator must have a strong army and use it regularly. Even if it were the case that we do not value the freedom that democracy represents, the funding of that army and the general malaise of the oppressed would prove more of a drag on the economy than the burdens of democracy.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Democracy is worth having even if there were a cost to it. But there is not. It is not a coincidence that the most prosperous nations are democracies.

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