IN our humble urban existence, most are subject to such daily nuisances as long commutes, crowds, noise, and a deteriorating living environment.
These problems are so much part and parcel of urban life that few of us even notice them.
Nor is there much chance of systemically addressing these issues in the complicated mechanism of modern politics, given the ever-present imperative of economic growth.
I heard on the radio last week that the global drumbeat for growth and prosperity has reduced the tropical rainforest in Indonesia to a fifth of its former size, and the destruction will continue apace since lifting more people out of “poverty” is the unquestioned global priority.
If you look around, some governments have become super efficient in achieving some goals such as military buildup and concentrating wealth in the hands of the few, while they have fallen dysfunctionally short in attaining other goals, which are generally of a more social nature.
According to “Why Government Fails So Often — and How It Can Do Better” by Peter H. Schuck, this cognitive dissonance is widely felt in the US.
Citing a survey, Schuck finds that only 2 percent of respondents said the US federal government does an “excellent job” in running its programs.
“In short, the public views the federal government as a chronically clumsy, ineffectual, bloated giant that cannot be counted upon to do the right thing, much less to do it well,” observes Schuck.
Why do so many people, many widely perceived as “successful,” so disparage their own government? Professor Schuck offers several explanations.
The most straightforward answer is that the federal government does, in fact, perform poorly in implementing a vast range of domestic programs.
A competitive political party system and critical media may have somewhat amplified perception of this failure by informing the public.
Second, the American legislative process is highly dysfunctional by almost any standard. Professional judgment suggests that it is even worse than it appears because of unnecessary gridlock.
Third, Americans perceive a gap between “the democracy of everyday life” and democracy as practiced in Washington, between how well their neighborhoods and communities generally function, and the federal government’s performance.
Obviously, this gap leads to diverging goals. As an extreme manifestation of this divergence, government is concerned with economic growth as one-off existential situations, while distracted from other social goals.
Signs of dysfunction
Often this single-minded pursuit of prosperity defeats worthy social goals.
A simple but disturbing question is: Has the world become overwhelmingly more prosperous, or has it become more unequal since the days of robber barons and monarchs?
Thus, I tend to disagree with Schuck’s explanation that “prosperity may have raised public expectations and demands.”
I do not believe this stems from a postmodern erosion of respect for authority. Respect is earned, not extorted. And the citizenry’s natural interest in the question “What have you done for me lately?” can be justified. Pervasive signs of government dysfunction naturally raise doubts about the legitimacy of “democratic” government, or the purpose of government in the first place.
People brought up on Western-style democracy tend to instinctively demand more government intervention in tackling “problems.” But it is rewarding to revisit what philosophers East and West have to say about government.
Think of Lao Tzu’s wuwei erzhi, or “Govern by doing nothing that goes against nature.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote, “I heartily accept the motto — ‘That government is best which governs least’.” (“Civil Disobedience,” 1849).
In his book, Schuck contextualizes the problem strictly within the limits of his profession as lawyer and political scientist, by providing a range of examples and evidence to explain why so many domestic policies go awry. He does identify some structural flaws that threaten to undermine any administration.
Government is getting bigger and bigger, for instance.
As the number of regulatory agency staff has ballooned, these staffers churn out more and costlier rules than ever before. Historian Niall Ferguson notes that the Federal Register has grown two and a half times faster than the economy over a long period of time. The Registers is the official daily journal that contains government agency rules, proposed rules, and public notices.
Recurrent weaknesses also include unrealistic goals, perverse incentives and distorted information. Not all the blame goes to the government.
According to Schuck, the situation is also linked with the popular belief that alien forces in Washington, rather than “we the people,” are responsible for the government’s failures.
And how to define failure and success can be a problem itself. The author says it is much harder to assess government failures than market failures, and it can require great insight and dexterity to determine whether particular public programs do or do not work.
The main index of a program’s performance should not be its durability or its enthusiastic defenders — which may reflect political inertia protected by strategically positioned beneficiaries — but its cost-effectiveness, says the author. In consent-based polity, projects can be contested and contested.
Since the problem of doing it right is more important than doing it quickly, the loss in efficiency has sometimes been an accepted trade-off.
For instance, in some countries it can take decades to build a highway, while in others it takes just a few months.
It is hard to say which is better, when governments are incompetent and wasteful.
Some of the greatest US governmental achievements of the past — the Transcontinental Railroad and the interstate highway system — involved appalling corruption and political skullduggery.
In 2011, the federal government spent around US$3.8 trillion. Even excluding the US$7.7 billion in defense spending, that still leaves US$3 trillion. Justification for this expenditure is the faith that money is better spent by the government than by the private taxpayers from whom it is exacted.
The author suggests people’s attitudes do constitute a serious challenge to effective governance. Some suggest this attitude to be signal feature of American political culture that has engendered a self-fulfilling prophecy: Suspicious voters resist providing the government the power and resources that are necessary for the kind of successful, effective programs that could have reversed this mistrust and disrespect of government.
This may have increased public resistance to new policy initiatives, as confirmed by President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act of 2010.
A larger majority of Americans view big government as a larger threat to the country’s future than even big business — and this only a few years after misconduct by major financial firms brought the economy to its knees. Well, it is probably easier to understand, for as the Occupy the Wall Street demonstrations suggested, if it were not for the government bailout, those financial firms should be on their knees today.
These contradictions are not episodic problems or the result of partisan bickering, but are inherent in the capitalist system, and no amount of tinkering can correct it.
Schuck, though, is optimistic. To address each problem, he proposes many achievable reforms, such as avoiding moral hazard, empowering consumers of public services and increasing the use of “big data.”