Monday, March 1, 2010

On Gridlock

There's an interesting political history article up on CNN's front page, Blame yesterday's reforms for today's gridlocked Congress.

The writer, David Frum, gives some historical references to back up his thesis:

"Congress [from 1590 to 1980] was controlled by a handful of committee chairmen, who owed their positions to seniority. The committees did their work in secret. Bills written in committee typically could not be amended on the floor of Congress. The institution was authoritarian, hierarchical, opaque. And stuff passed.

"In the mid-1970s, Congress underwent a revolution. The power of the committee chairmen was broken. The number of subcommittees proliferated. The committees met in public. Amendments multiplied. Congress become more open, more egalitarian, more responsive. And stuff ceased to pass."

The reforms Frum talks about are the decentralization of power in government, the weakening of the Democratic and Republican parties that made politicians dependent on the people for their campaign funding, and changes that made filibusters both easier to break and easier to initiate. In short, Frum thinks that "today, everything happens in the bright glare of sunshine, policed by hundreds of ideological interest groups".

This is great, right?

Well, Frum doesn't think so:

"We have an ideology that more publicity, more transparency, more openness must improve Congress. And when each successive wave of openness makes things worse, we tell ourselves that the answer is even more publicity, transparency and openness still.

"No contrary evidence makes any impression. Seems like everything's open -- except our minds."

Where "worse" means that government doesn't regularly come riding to the rescue with a massive package of laws, bureaus, agencies, and social programs.

Look, government is basically a zero-sum game. There may be small ways to squeeze additional benefit out of it with careful policy balancing, but at the end of the day there's essentially a continuum between government power at one end, and government responsiveness at the other. If you want an open government that rules with the consent of the people, that government needs to be checked and balanced, and won't be able to force sweeping, fundamental changes on a population of people who may not be so keen on those changes. If you want a government with the power to look at a problem, decide on a radical response, and just make it happen in the face of serious disagreement, that government will necessarily be insular, concentrated, and far less responsive to individuals and small groups.

This issue is a is a fundamental one. On issues for which we have a strong social consensus (like "murder is bad"), a decentralized checked-and-balanced government beholden to diverse groups of citizens will still be able to reach a consensus and pass some laws. For issues on which we have a divided opinion (like "the solution to my high medical bills is a massive government-run charity that all people will be forced to donate to", or "the way to stop terrorism is a massive government surveillance program and an institutional disregard for the 4th Amendment"), "getting shit done" quickly and cleanly requires a government that's willing and able to simply ignore the strong objections of nearly half its people.

There are two ways you can go on this: if you want the solutions to social problems to come from government fiat, you have to essentially trust your government to keep your best interests at heart even in an opaque system with centralized power and insulation from public opinion. If you want an open government that you can keep an eye on and hold accountable for its decisions, you have to accept that others can hold it accountable too, and this will dramatically limit its power, requiring you to look outside government for solutions for whatever social ill most concerns you.

The United States was built on the second model, with "gridlock" deliberately engineered into the system. The first model is an electoral monarchy. Each system could have things to recommend it, based on your priorities, but don't fool yourself into thinking you can just take the benefits of both without the costs of either.

1 comment:

  1. Both sides pretend to belive that the "costs" of their preferred governmental style are actually a benefit; except when it conflicts with their will to power. EG the Republicans profess to want a limited .gov with strong checks on power, except when that same .gov needs to interfere with what happens in the bedroom or wedding ceremony. Likewise the Democrats profess to believe in government by elite, except when it suits them to pander to populism.

    (Note for people who don't know me; I am a generally-libertarian-leaning fiscal- and small-government-conservative. I draw my line at "the .gov may force the automobile manufacturers to include seat belts on cars, but may not force me to wear them". As far as socially conservative, I don't particularly care what you do, who you do it with, with how many or under what arrangement; as long as everyone consents and you don't scare the horses)