The next president will be impelled and empowered to reform it.
America has painted itself into a corner. The nation is faced with trillion-dollar deficits, but most political leaders are unwilling to propose real solutions for fear of alienating voters who want it all. Special interests maintain a death grip on the status quo, making it hard to fix things that everyone agrees are broken.
Where is a path out?
Little has emerged from the campaign season to address the reality that government is unsustainable in its current form. Conservative candidates pledge smaller government, but no candidate has solutions to crippling healthcare costs. Pledging to create “a leaner government,” President Obama has asked Congress to reinstate presidential authority to reorganize federal agencies. Rearranging the deck chairs will do almost nothing, however, to rescue the foundering ship.
Insiders say changing the system is hopeless. No democracy has ever been effective at clawing back promises. America can’t even purge benefits that long ago outlived their usefulness — like farm subsidies from the 1930s. Somehow we’ll muddle through. Doesn’t it always work that way?
Change is not a remote contingency, however. The next president will likely have an historic opportunity, thrust upon him by necessity, to remake the operating system of government. It’s time to get ready for tough choices.
Big Change, Around the Corner
Change occurs not incrementally but in big shifts. The relative stability over the past half century is misleading. What appears to be an immutable way of governing, according to political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, is just a temporary lull between episodes of big change, which they call “punctuated equilibrium.”
A society hums along for a few decades, as pressures build up in one area or another. Then, because of a scandal or some outside crisis, the status quo gives way to this accumulated pressure. At that point, like the “stick slip” phenomenon of earthquakes, the tectonic plates shift in dramatic ways, changing the social contract and political equilibrium. Who would have thought that a man who set himself on fire in Tunisia would have unleashed the Arab spring?
This pattern is revealed clearly in American history. Over the past 100 years, America has made three dramatic shifts in the role of government: The Progressive era at the turn of the last century, ending laissez faire; the New Deal in the 1930s, instituting social safety nets; and the rights revolution of the 1960s. Each of these represented a radical expansion of the reach of government into society.
The challenge of the 21st century is to pull government back from daily choices while still allowing it to provide regulatory oversight and safety nets. We must discipline government’s appetite for social control, and push it away from the heaping table of unaffordable mandates and bloated regulation.
But the inertial forces of government, as the cynics suggest, don’t often turn back towards self-discipline. The parallels to history are unsettling. The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century BC, famously outlined the cycles of government from monarchs to aristocracies to democracies and back again. Each form of government works well until it loses its founding values — generally when heirs grow fat and greedy — and is then overthrown. Democracy failed, Polybius wrote, “once people had grown accustomed to eating off others’ tables and expected their daily needs to be met.”
The problem of “collective action” — getting people together to act in the common interest — is notoriously difficult. Short-term selfishness prevents any significant change until, Polybius would predict, it’s too late. The people who inhabit our national and state capitols, not only politicians but bureaucrats and special interest lobbyists, see themselves as agents, not principals. The job is to do what their “base” wants, not do what they think is right. Interest groups continue to cling to the status quo, even though they know something has to give.
Like it or not, America will change its way of governing. The growing crisis of authority will force us to start over. But how? Change in a crisis usually follows a new vision of a better society, often overthrowing either a tyrant or a discredited social norm. Identifying the culprit requires answering this question: What is it that prevents a fundamentally sound society from making practical choices?
The villain that keeps America stuck in a swamp is an underlying presumption about government decision-making, no less insidious because it rules from our preconceptions rather than from a palace. To get out of this mess, we must depose it, and embrace a new way of making public choices.
Reclaiming Human Control: Kill the Blob
America is mired in what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the rule of nobody.” The president’s powerlessness to reorganize the executive branch — supposedly his constitutional responsibility — is just a symptom of a core structural flaw. After decades of legal accretion, government is out of anyone’s control. Government is run by a giant legal blob, crushing society and public employees under a mass of mandates and bureaucracy.
Under blob rule, no human is in charge. Who’s in charge of balancing the budget? No one — the budget is largely pre-committed to programs made in political deals decades ago. Who’s in charge of running the school? No one — the principal is crushed by federal and state mandates, and tied in knots by union work rules. Who’s in charge of approving the power line to take energy from the wind farm to the urban areas? No one — the bureaucratic process goes on indefinitely, at the mercy of whoever cares to challenge official judgment.
Americans know that something basic is broken. The dysfunction is manifested in the daily choices of doctors, educators and officials unable to act sensibly. The accumulation of countless skewed choices results in runaway healthcare costs, failing schools and impractical bureaucracy.
We must restore individual responsibility as the organizing principle of government. Putting people in charge again is much more radical than it sounds at first. It requires replacing the unknowable mass of bureaucracy with a simpler framework of goals and pragmatic authority. Real people, not a viscous goo of complex rules, would take back the responsibility to meet our public goals.
The litmus test for a functioning government is this: Is the person in charge free to make a sensible choice? If not, nothing will work sensibly.
The challenge is how to make responsibility trustworthy. What if the teacher is unfair, or the official is on the take, or the President is just helping his cronies? Personal accountability is one protection: people caught misbehaving should lose their jobs, or be sent to jail for crimes. But distrust is pervasive, and Americans will want some protection up front against bad decisions.
This can be done with human checks and balances, not thousand-page rule books or legal proceedings that drag on for years. For important decisions, give oversight authority to an independent official or group — say, a school-based committee of parents and teachers with authority to veto a decision to dismiss a teacher. Unlike today’s legal tar pit, however, these checks should be based on human judgment. One person makes a choice, another checks it. Government can move forward.
Accountability today means mindless compliance, not doing what’s right. The overall effect is profoundly immoral. By what right do we think we can make the children of tomorrow pay for trillion-dollar deficits today? This is an example of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” in bureaucratic systems: the law made me do it.
Putting people in charge again is hardly subversive. Our founders designed our Republic not to avoid human judgment but to give officials freedom to use their independent judgment. Better that we embrace a new vision consistent with democratic values than the alternatives provided by history.
Originally published at www.theatlantic.com on March 3, 2012.