Why Reformers Fail

By Common Good

When people talk about “fixing government,” it sounds like apple pie. Yeah, Let’s Fix It! But what exactly does fixing government mean? Entrepreneur and free-thinker Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, advanced the discussion in a recent Washington Post op-ed, when he stated that the Republican Party “must stand for effective government, not for giving up on government.” But the most specific he got was to call for “less bureaucracy and less rulemaking.” Fixing government, it seems, is a matter of degree — let’s cut some red tape.

On the left, Harvard public policy Prof. Elaine Kamarck is the reform gold standard. She led Al Gore’s “reinventing government” initiative and has a new a book, Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again, which argues there should be much more attention paid to “implementation” of programs, with better systems and better management focused on results: “Like business leaders, political leaders fail when they can’t execute. And effective execution of a policy requires understanding the capacity of the modern federal government, a massive operation….” Mike Bloomberg has also given speeches calling for “better management” of the executive branch. For the progressive left, fixing government means being smarter and more business-like.

We have a different take: Government acts stupidly because no one — NO ONE — has authority to use common sense. The teacher can’t maintain order without slogging through a months-long “due process” hearing. The President can’t build new infrastructure because he doesn’t have the authority to say, “OK, that’s enough environmental review, lets make a decision.” Human judgment is indispensable to all human accomplishment. “Nothing that’s any good works by itself,” Edison noted. “You got to make the damn thing work.”

The endless, mindless failure of government is not caused merely by too much bureaucracy — it’s caused by the mutant governing philosophy that bureaucracy should replace human judgment. In contrast to the 15-page Constitution, we get the 950-page Volcker Rule. Modern government is based on a failed premise that law should tell humans how to do things. But law is supposed to be a framework for human responsibility, not a replacement for human responsibility.

WE WILL NEVER FIX GOVERNMENT UNTIL WE ABANDON THE CENTRAL PLANNING MODEL OF REGULATION. We must return to the Framer’s conception of a “Republic” in which officials act on their best judgment and are accountable for how they do. Of course law is vital — to set goals and governing principles, and hierarchies of accountability, and, sometimes specific rules, as with pollution limits. But when law tries to supplant human judgment, it fails. Life is too complicated to be governed by dense rulebooks. That’s the core flaw of modern government. Law can’t think. People on the spot must take responsibility to do what they think is right, and be accountable for how they do. Talking about “better management” and “less red tape” and “new systems” will do nothing without human authority to make necessary choices. What reformers need to talk about is putting humans in charge again.

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