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Between the time when the results became clear and the moment when the new president-elect emerged to acknowledge his victory, two long hours passed. A crowd of fifty thousand stood waiting for their man in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas, shivering in bitterly cold weather that, being unseasonable, caught people in their shirtsleeves. Millions of citizens elsewhere waited, too. Younger people could barely remember a Democratic presidency and wondered how the first Democratic president-elect in sixteen years would sound. Their elders wondered whether the new man would show that he had learned from his Democratic predecessors' mistakes.
At 11:22 P.M. central time, on November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton finally emerged, looking exhausted but happy. He had made history, and he knew it. His speech was short and began with thank-yous for the crowd, the family, the voters, the running mate. Then came what was, in effect, the first substantive statement of the Clinton years. He announced that he would "face problems too long ignored," and that people needed to be brought together "so that our diversity can be a source of strength." Then he said: "I think perhaps the most important thing that we understand here in the heartland of Arkansas is the need to reform the political system, to reduce the influence of special interests and give more influence back to the kind of people that are in this crowd tonight by the tens of thousands. And I will work ... to do that."
Campaigning against specialinterests—railing against them and deploring them and promising to break them—is a venerable American tradition. In 1948, President Harry Truman cried out from his railway car that his campaign was "a crusade of the people against the special interests," and the people cheered. In private, twenty years earlier, Calvin Coolidge warned his successor, Herbert Hoover, about the armies of interested parties who would be coming to see him. "You have to stand, every day, three or four hours of visitors," Coolidge said. "Nine-tenths of them want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile, they will start up all over again." Long before Coolidge, James Madison thought hard about how to contain the undue influence of what he called "faction," by which he meant "a number of citizens ... who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." If he had known the term "special interest," no doubt he would have used it.
The curious thing is that ever since Coolidge's day, and especially since Truman's, interest-group activity has increased. The more the public complained and the more the politicians promised change, the more the lobbies seemed to thrive and the more powerful they seemed to become. And so the president-elect stood there in 1992, promising "to reduce the influence of special interests," as so many had promised before him.
Some years earlier, another young politician began a crusade against "special interests." Like Bill Clinton, he set out to transform government into something more effective, more forward-looking, more responsive. He was as determined as Bill Clinton, and also as bright (which was saying something). His name was David Stockman, and in those years, in the mid-1970s, he worked as executive director of the House Republican Conference, where his boss was a rather obscure moderate Republican named John Anderson. In 1975, out of the blue, Stockman announced himself to the world with a brilliant and provocative article that opened a new conservative front in the war against big government.
"The vast increase in federal social welfare outlays," wrote Stockman in The Public Interest magazine, "has created in its wake a political maintenance system based in no small part on the cooptation and incorporation of Congress itself." Conservatives and liberals alike channeled social spending, not to those who most needed it or to the places where it would do the most good, but to all 435 congressional districts, in a rain of political manna. The maxims of real-world social spending included "Don't close the money sluice no matter how outmoded the program" and—a concise formulation of political utilitarianism—"The greatest goodies for the greatest number." Urban-aid programs and housing programs and education programs had become for the 1970s what dams and bridges had been for the 1930s and 1940s. As a consequence, "what may have been the bright promise of the Great Society has been transformed into a flabby hodge-podge, funded without policy consistency or rigor, that increasingly looks like a great social pork barrel."
Stockman soon went on to become a Republican congressman in his own right, and so fiercely did his intellect and ambition burn on Capitol Hill that the new Republican president, Ronald Reagan, chose him to be the administration's budget director after the 1980 election. From that post, Stockman became general of the campaign he had sketched in his article. He was the chief ideologue and strategist for what amounted to the first reformist conservative administration since the New Deal. As the Reagan administration began, he said: "We have to show that we are willing to attack powerful clients with weak claims. I think that's critical to our success—both political and economic success."
What happened was not what Stockman had in mind. Within five years Stockman had retired from the Reagan administration and from politics, embittered and disappointed. "In 1986," he wrote in the late months of that year in a postscript to his angry book The Triumph of Politics, "the federal government again spent 24 percent of the GNP, compared to a pre-1980 norm of about 20 percent. Why? Because the White House has no semblance of a program or political will to spend any less." The powerful clients, he said, had won. After his book was published, little was heard from Stockman.
At about the same time, however, another reformer stood before a small group of conservative activists and explained to the frustrated audience how, despite Ronald Reagan's failure, the fight against entrenched government could yet be won. I happened to be there that night and was fascinated by the peculiar but compelling visitor. Newt Gingrich talked grandly and abstractly and seemed as eccentric as his name. Yet his magnetism was apparent, and his unruly intelligence dazzling. The problem until then, he explained, had been failure to think "outside the box." Whereupon he drew a box: a matrix of dots, three by three. He reminded his audience of the old puzzle: Connect all of these dots by drawing only four lines. The trick is that you can't solve the puzzle unless you draw lines that extend beyond the boundaries of the matrix. But if you break out of bounds, he said, you can solve it.
In 1995, he got his chance. When he became speaker of the House, Gingrich was determined to do from Capitol Hill what David Stockman had tried to do from the White House. The result, to Gingrich's credit, included two landmark reforms of recalcitrant and dysfunctional federal programs: farm subsidies and welfare. Elsewhere, however, Gingrich's failure was complete and comprehensive. Indeed, for his party it proved catastrophic. By 1999, Gingrich was a memory.
The contours of Gingrich's assault on Washington were different from those of Stockman's assault, and both differed sharply from Bill Clinton's attempts to change things, most notably the health-care reform effort of 1993 and 1994. Yet the fate of all three reformers was more or less the same. Washington remained much as it had been before. ("Only more so," a wag might add.) Stockman retired denouncing his own failure; Gingrich was unceremoniously dumped by his party. Clinton met, in some respects, the saddest fate of all: He entered office as a reformer, promising a new dynamism in government; he left office as a manager whose domestic policy traded in microscopic initiatives. In a sense, the man who stood on the steps of the Old State House that night in 1992, who promised to "reduce the influence of special interests and give more influence back to the kind of people that are in this crowd tonight," packed up and left town long before Bill Clinton did. As Clinton left the stage, no viable reform movement, conservative or liberal or anything else, remained on the field.
No doubt the future would bring more reformers, more cries to take up arms against "special interests" and return government "to the people." Nonetheless, the twenty or so years that began with Ronald Reagan's election shed a cold and brilliant light on what it is that government's would-be reformers, of whatever stripe, are up against. Change is as easy to promise as ever. But it has grown a good deal harder to deliver. Politicians like Stockman and Clinton and Gingrich and their successors and their successors cannot hope to keep their promises to reform the sprawling establishment of Washington, or to "reduce the influence of special interests," until they unriddle the paradoxes of a political malady whose perverse dynamics undermine government and enrage voters.
Why does the "special-interest" sector grow year after year, despite the politicians' promises and the public's disgust? Why does this sector feed on its own growth, with no limits in sight?
Why is it that, despite America's extraordinary wealth and the advent of all kinds of new problem-solving technology, the American government's capacity to solve large problems appears to have diminished sharply since the 1960s? Why has government ceased, for the most part, to be a creative force?
Why does "getting things done" in the short run often make problem solving more difficult for the government in the long run? Why does the constant commotion of activity in Washington stymie rather than advance the effectiveness of government as a whole?
Why are many liberals and Democrats, with their greater proclivity to use government to right wrongs and correct flaws, paralyzing the very government that they believe they are championing? Why are many conservatives, with their blame-the-liberals rhetoric, actually feeding the "big government" that they constantly decry?
Why was Bill Clinton's election-night rhetoric, which promised to reinvigorate the system by reducing the influence of "them" (the special interests) and increasing the influence of "us" (the American people), a cause rather than a cure of the problem he sought to solve?
Why is it that the body politic demands "change" in the abstract but recoils from it in the particular? Why did three waves of determined reform fail, each more spectacularly than the last?
If politicians and the public do not understand the answers to those questions, they will not have a chance.
"The clear mandate of this election," Clinton remarked a few days after winning in 1992, "was an end of politics as usual, an end to the gridlock in Washington, an end to finger-pointing and blame." Alas, his attack on "special interests" was not particularly encouraging, because it implied that the problem was "them." Wrong. The problem is us.
Sighs and Moans
For me, the first inkling that something malign was happening came in February 1985, only a few months after I arrived in Washington. Having just left my job with a newspaper in the South to become a reporter for National Journal, I wandered into the Senate press gallery and beheld the tall, gangly figure of Senator Alan Simpson. The Wyoming Republican was doing what's known as "holding the floor" while the majority and minority leaders worked behind the scenes on some compromise or other. In this case, holding the floor consisted of haranguing an almost entirely empty chamber (and this was before television came to the Senate). I sat down in the gallery, at first listening idly and then becoming absorbed. To this day, I have never witnessed another political speech like that one.
Simpson was complaining about the partisan games that go on in the Capitol. "Out there in the American public," he said, "are people who are watching us go through this, trying to see who can hook the anchor on the Democrats or who can hook the anchor on the Republicans, who look upon that as a childish activity." Well, that was certainly true, but it was hardly new. Simpson went on, however, to talk about the political uses of fear.
"We are frozen in place," he mused. "We are frozen in place because there are enough of us who get a coterie of people and interest groups and media about us and say they are going to do a number on this issue or are going to do this or that." He talked about a veterans' lobbyist he knew. "We have had some very earthy discussions, the two of us. He is a delightful, pleasant guy. But the emphasis was to get the two million members; and you do that ... just like we do things here—by juicing up the troops.... What happened to us was we got a $200 billion deficit by juicing up the troops." And then he said: "One of the things ... that we do here so beautifully ... is the use of fear, raw fear. You can do a lot with raw fear. You can do a lot with raw fear with people who do like nuclear power or do not like it. You can do a lot with raw fear with farmers. You can do a lot with raw fear with uranium workers. You can do a lot with raw fear with oil and gas workers. You can do a lot with raw fear with veterans. You can do a lot with raw fear with Social Security recipients.
"And that is what we do beautifully here in this place, because I guess we really are all impelled by a raw fear—and that raw fear is, I would guess, a fear of what the electorate will do to us, and, of course, maybe that is the primal raw fear in this place."
Simpson's speech was more than just an oration; it was an outburst. The striking thing about it, besides its candor, was the level of frustration it exposed. At that point, "gridlock" had yet to become a political cliché. The same party controlled the Senate and the White House (though not the House) under an extraordinarily popular president. Yet here was rhetoric of stagnation and defeat: "We are frozen in place." Simpson's complaint went deeper than the parties or personalities in the White House or the Congress, deeper even than the difficulty of getting things done. The founders, after all, intended that personalities clash and that getting things done be difficult: better safe than sorry. Simpson's complaint seemed to be that individuals and groups had become adept at mobilizing fear to achieve political goals. His tone suggested the pain of one who is in a trap and does not understand why he can't get out.
In May 1985, three months after Alan Simpson's speech, one Democratic representative from Texas, a former banker and high school teacher named Marvin Leath, rose in the House to propose a budget package that would have significantly reduced the deficit. In those days, the deficit was so large that it threatened to spiral out of control. In his package, Leath included most of what the experts agreed needed to be done: reductions in Ronald Reagan's defense buildup, some increases in taxes, and the abolition of one year's cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments. This last provision was especially courageous, because a Democrat proposing to dock Social Security was like a hemophiliac volunteering for a sword fight. On the House floor, Leath gave a gutsy speech that deserved to be remembered, though it wasn't: "As you could most certainly expect," he said, "conservatives are pointing fingers and telling liberals, `It's your fault. All the years of massive social and domestic spending are responsible for these deficits. Let's gore your ox, and we can solve the problem.' And just as certainly, as you might also expect, liberals are pointing fingers and telling conservatives, `It's your fault. These massive defense buildups and these massive tax cuts are responsible for these deficits. Let's gore your ox, and we can solve the problem.'
"The ... truth is, we all know who is to blame. Democrats and Republicans are to blame. Liberals and conservatives and all in between are to blame. The people are to blame for believing all the garbage they get bombarded with through the mail raising money from both parties and a thousand special-interest lobbies who circle this Capitol in their Mercedes automobiles after leaving their million-dollar homes in northern Virginia."
Here again, as in Simpson's speech, were the undertones of rage and entrapment. Politicians have a poor image, but anyone who knows them knows that by and large they are hardworking people who want only the best for their country. They do not want to make things worse; they want to make them better. Yet increasingly they feel that they cannot make things better. Increasingly they play the blame game without wanting to but without understanding why they play it or how to escape. They wonder why the swelling crowds of aides and lobbyists and campaign consultants seem not to empower them but to hem them in. And in all of those feelings, they mirror the feelings of the people who elect them.
Many people in Washington admired Leath's budget package, because it made good sense. Practically everyone admired Leath, who stood up and told the truth and stuck his neck out. Practically everyone voted against him, too. His package was defeated, 372 to 56. In 1990, disgusted with his and Congress's inability to solve problems, Leath announced that he would not seek reelection to a seventh term. He became a lobbyist.
For thirty years, the American public has increasingly expressed feelings of frustration and entrapment similar to Alan Simpson's and Marvin Leath's. In 1958, around three-fourths of the people said they trusted the government in Washington to "do what's right" always or most of the time. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a long decline of confidence began. By about 1980, the trust level had fallen by more than half, and, apart from a temporary excursion upward during the Reagan years, it has stayed in the 20 to 30 percent range (depending on which poll you look at) ever since. Americans' mistrust of their government's capacity to "do the right thing" ranks among the largest and most consequential political changes of the twentieth century. Other data tell the same story of disillusionment. Two-thirds of Americans, solid majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike, say that the government creates more problems than it solves, rather than vice versa. By more than two to one, people say that abuses by the federal government are a bigger problem than abuses by big business, and that "big government" is a greater threat to the country in the future than "big business" or "big labor." Between the early 1950s and the early 1990s, the proportion of people saying that government wastes "a lot" of their tax money rose from fewer than half to 75 percent. By the time the 1980s came, politicians routinely campaigned against "Washington" and "government," even as voters demanded more from both places. People felt they deserved more, yet they felt they received less, and they didn't understand why. The more they struggled, the more they felt beset.
The easiest way to refer to government's problems is as "special-interest gridlock." That description isn't completely wrong, but it is far enough off target to be badly misleading.
For one thing, the "gridlock" metaphor implies that nothing gets done. It implies, in other words, that the problem is lack of governmental motion or lack of activity. One of the main goals of this book is to refocus attention away from the quantity of motion in Washington and toward the effectiveness of results. The central issue is not "Why does Washington get so little done?" It is "Why has Washington's activity become so ineffective at solving problems?"
In Washington, after all, things always get done. Despite the talk of gridlock, the government reliably passes scads of laws and scads more regulations and, by any objective measure, gets a lot done. Even the do-nothing, "gridlocked" days of George Bush were in fact neither do-nothing nor really gridlocked. Those years saw passage of the sweeping Clean Air Act and other environmental measures, the equally sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act, new money for child care, a major highway bill, and much else besides. In just the field of civil rights, during the supposedly gridlocked Bush period the government enacted, among other new programs and laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act, the Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992, the Minority Farmers Rights Act, the Japanese American Redress Entitlement Program, the antiredlining provisions of the banking-reform law, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, and the aforementioned Americans with Disabilities Act. According to congressional figures, the number and page count of laws enacted during "gridlock" remained well in line with the post-1970 norm.
In fact, if you look at the record, simple gridlock can't be the problem. Figure 1.1 shows two basic indicators plotted against each other: people's confidence in the government, as measured by their responses to that classic "trust in government" question, and pages of new laws enacted by each Congress. Though I would not want to make any sophisticated social-science claims for this chart, it certainly rules out the standard gridlock hypothesis in which people are unhappy because the wheels in Washington are spinning too slowly: Over almost forty years, the more activity Washington generated, the less happy people were. So "getting more done," however desirable or undesirable it may be on its own account, cannot go to the root of the problem.
The question is not the quantity of activity but how effectively a given amount of activity solves problems "on net." That phrase "on net"—meaning "on balance," after the wins and losses are tallied up—is important. In life, every solution creates at least some new problems. The trick is always to find solutions that create fewer problems than they solve. In the classic example, if you kill a fly with a flyswatter, you come out ahead on net. If you kill a fly with a cannon, you create more problems than you solve. To the extent that an institution can reliably solve more problems than it creates, it has problem-solving capacity.
Problem-solving capacity is precisely what seems to have been shrinking for the federal government. Political activity has become a kind of flailing that creates frenzy but does little good, or even makes problems worse. Wheels spin and gears mesh, but the car goes nowhere, or goes everywhere at once, or shakes itself to pieces. More problems seem to be created than solved.
The other trouble with the term "special-interest gridlock" is its implication that a few fat cats manipulate the system for their own narrow advantage. The fact is that the American system of governance today is much less at the mercy of any narrow, manipulative few than at any time in the past. The era of the backroom bosses who called the shots, of the rich patrons who could buy the system, is over. The Leath budget was not defeated by any cigar-chomping industrialist with an interest in protecting his western mining interests. It was defeated by a coalition of interests representing virtually everybody. The American Association of Retired Persons alone boasts well over 30 million members, or one of every six adult Americans; because most of us have aged relatives, most of us are among the group's indirect clients; because we all grow old, each one of us is among the group's potential members. If you add the farmers and veterans and oil workers and all the others whom Simpson mentioned and Leath took on, you see there is no longer anything particularly special about "special interests." Today everyone is organized, and everyone is part of an interest group. We have met the special interests, and they are us.
If, however, the interests are no longer special, they are not quite general, either. And here is a puzzle. Conventional wisdom has suggested that as more Americans got organized, and as the process was opened up to more groups and classes than ever before, the claims of all of those competing interests would be weighed and mediated in the political process, producing a more balanced and satisfactory result than the fat-cat system had ever done. But that is not what has happened. The public today is less happy than before, and problems seem less likely to be solved.
It is possible to cook up all kinds of ad hoc explanations for what went wrong. Many have some truth in them. But most of them are ultimately unsatisfying.
A standard complaint has been lack of leadership. But that diagnosis does not explain enough. There is little evidence that the people are electing poorer leaders now than in the past, that a worse class of person runs for public office, or that human leadership capacity has deteriorated over time. Some politicians are fools and rogues, but many more are bright, hardworking, and honest. In times of crisis—the debate over whether to authorize war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, for instance—the system still can and does rise to the challenge magnificently. At exceptional moments, leadership can still be found in abundance, even in the rank and file of politicians. Marvin Leath's ill-fated 1985 budget proposal was only one example.
I know an antigovernment activist who said he became physically ill just looking at the edifices of big government in Washington. For me, the effect is always the opposite. As many times as I have been in the United States Capitol, I can't enter it or even look up at the great dome without catching my breath a little in awe. And I have known and watched enough of the people who work there to reject another popular hypothesis, namely, that politics is dominated by jellyfish and Neanderthals. Today's politicians include a few genuine reactionaries, but also a quantity and range of activists whose commitment and talent yield nothing to the abolitionists of 150 years ago or the Progressives of a century ago or the labor left of fifty years ago. Moreover, today's activists hold positions of power, whereas in the 1950s and 1960s they were mostly locked out by the powerful old men who controlled Congress. If the government is becoming unable to solve problems, that is not because it is filling up with weaklings and reactionaries. The change has to be on the system level. And, to judge by the frustration and bewilderment expressed by Simpson and Leath and others, the problem must be of a sort that is not transparent to the people within the system.
Some people, mainly liberals, would say that the public was brainwashed by Ronald Reagan and other Washington-bashing conservatives into hating government, and that the result has been to render government ineffective. Yet the decline in confidence began well before Ronald Reagan and his conservatives came to town. The wave of disgust with government brought Jimmy Carter into office before it swept Reagan to power. Moreover, these days you would have to be brainwashed not to have doubts, or worse, about government. Even among thoughtful observers who were no fans of the Reaganites, the feeling has grown that government really is, as Bill Clinton himself once said, "in the way."
The growing influence of money in politics is often held up as the problem. That may be a problem, but there is nothing remotely new in it. There is more money in politics today than before, but money by itself need not lead to stultification. If the money is wielded by a few powerful interests who agree on what to do, then money greases the skids and things get done. Anyway, blaming money begs the real question: Why is there more money in politics? Why does political activity devour a growing share of the country's resources? The rising expenditure on politics is itself as much a symptom as a cause of whatever is wrong.
Some liberals complain that the problem is the power of corporate lobbying to block changes that are in the public interest. Here many of the same reservations apply. There was no lack of corporate influence in the days of Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan, and those magnates were unable to stymie the trustbusters. Corporate influence is nothing new. What is new is the proliferation of nonbusiness activist groups, many of them representing what they believe to be the public interest. Some of them, such as the environmental groups, have large amounts of money and wield enough power to push through, for instance, the massive Clean Air Act of 1990, which most corporations would happily have done without. Ask a business lobbyist if he feels he can control what government does, and he will look at you with incredulity.
Still another diagnosis in recent years blamed recurrent episodes of divided control of the government, in which Republicans held the White House and Democrats held the Congress. Unquestionably, divided control can make the process stickier. However, Democrats held both branches under Carter and had plenty of problems; Republicans held effective control of both branches in 1981, and rather than defeating the interest groups, they rolled over for them, handing out tax breaks as party favors. Divided control did not prevent the Nixon administration from making a profound mark on the government and its domestic policy, whereas united Democratic control did Bill Clinton little good in 1993 and 1994, when he was thwarted repeatedly on Capitol Hill and barely managed to pass his first budget. If divided control was the crucial problem, then matters should have improved, not worsened, after Democrats assumed control of both branches in 1992. Instead, the public wound up angrier than ever, and back swung the government to divided control in 1994, this time with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans running Congress. If experience since the 1970s is any indication, there is more to the story than who controls which branch of government. Moreover, a number of countries with parliamentary systems, under which the ruling party or coalition always controls the whole government, have had "special-interest gridlock" problems comparable to our own. In France, much as in America, opinion polls have found that a record share of the public (82 percent, in one 1993 poll) was dissatisfied with the way the country was being governed. In Japan, decades of single-party control turned government ministries into special-interest protectorates, so that crucial economic and social reforms were blocked for much too long, to the point of dragging down the entire economy.
"Publics all across the industrial world don't know what to do about modern government," writes the public-opinion expert Everett Carll Ladd. "They see no alternative to its playing a large role, but they are increasingly frustrated as they see it malperforming and increasingly doubtful that it can be made to work better." When Robert Putnam, Susan Pharr, and Russell Dalton compared survey data that were gathered over the last few decades in a variety of industrialized countries, they found that, as The Economist reported in 1999, "in most of the mature democracies, the results show a pattern of disillusionment with politicians." In eleven of twelve countries surveyed, people's confidence in politicians had fallen (the Netherlands was the exception). In eleven out of fourteen countries, confidence in the national parliament (or Congress) had declined, "with especially sharp falls in Canada, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and the United States." In eighteen of twenty wealthy countries examined by Martin Wattenberg, of the University of California at Irvine, voter turnout had declined—by a median amount of 10 percent—since the early 1950s. Whatever has happened does not seem to be wholly peculiar to the American system of government.
Over the course of several years, I have come to believe that ad hoc explanations based on personalities or political parties are too superficial to explain what has happened. I have come to suspect that the conventional wisdom is backward: The worrisome thing is not so much that American society is in the grip of its gridlocked government, but that American government is in the grip of powerful and broad changes in American society. Alan Simpson and Marvin Leath, without quite understanding how, were squeezed by tectonic forces that are very deep and very difficult to resist and that, importantly, are directional. That is, the situation, if left unattended, tends to get worse.
This book is about the side effects of the postwar style of politics, a style that emphasizes interest-group activism and redistributive programs. Because the book emphasizes the darker side of the pressure groups and the programs, it may be most congenial to conservatives, who have always resented programs that take money out of some pockets and put it into others. I hope, though, that nonconservatives will also think hard about what follows, since the argument itself is neither partisan nor ideological. To understand government's debilitation and see that it is a serious problem, you don't need to believe that government is evil and all programs should be abolished. Far from it. Redistributive programs are in use everywhere, and should be. Aid to the unemployed provides security against the most bruising trauma of capitalism; aid to the elderly provides security in old age; aid to students can help open doors and raise incomes; aid to veterans repays a public debt to those who serve. All of those goals are worthy, and all of those programs serve real social purposes. The problem is understanding and then minimizing the groups' and programs' cumulative side effects, which turn out to be both nasty and inherent.
By definition, the power of government to solve problems comes from its ability to reassign resources, whether by taxing, spending, regulating, or simply passing laws. But that very ability energizes countless investors and entrepreneurs and ordinary Americans to go digging for gold by lobbying government. In time, a whole industry—large, sophisticated, professional, and to a considerable extent self-serving—emerges and then assumes a life of its own. This industry is a drain on the productive economy, and there appears to be no natural limit to its growth. As it grows, the steady accumulation of subsidies and benefits, each defended in perpetuity by a professional interest group, calcifies government. Washington loses its capacity to experiment and adapt and so becomes increasingly prone to failure.
Moreover, as the client groups proliferate and professionalize, government becomes less coherent and more difficult for politicians and voters to control. Like the virus that mutates to stay ahead of the latest drugs, programs change, but they do so in ways that preserve their existence and keep their clients happy, rather than in ways that solve any particular social problem with any particular degree of effectiveness. If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. After a 150-year period of relative modesty and quiescence, and then a fifty-year period of high ambition and rapid expansion, government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
That is what I mean by "government's end." Not that government is over; obviously, it is not. In a way, in fact, I mean just the opposite. I mean "end" in a sense more akin to "destination," although certainly no one intended to wind up here. Government has evolved to a steady-state condition from which it cannot be dislodged by any tolerable amount of political brute force. What you see now in Washington is basically what you will get for a very long time to come, even though many people, in fact probably a majority of people, may both wish and vote for something quite different.
If I am right, this diagnosis is, of itself, not necessarily either good or bad. It is certainly not anybody's first choice, but whether it is a crisis or merely a less-than-ideal fact of life depends, like so many other less-than-ideal facts of life, on how well we cope with it. Unfortunately, the political system has had a hard time adjusting, no doubt because the reality of government's condition cuts sharply across the rhetoric of politicians and the expectations of political activists. The public and even some politicians and activists are growing gradually, if grudgingly, more accepting of the natural limits on government's ability to change society. Not even the most liberal Democrats talk anymore of nationalizing great industries or of providing guaranteed incomes for everybody. Beyond that adjustment, however, lies another, which is subtler and may be harder. The public needs to begin accepting the natural limits on society's ability to change government.
In spring 1994, this book—more aptly, this book's predecessor—was first published under the title Demosclerosis. Shortly thereafter came Clinton's dramatic attempt to overhaul the country's health care system, and after that came Gingrich's even more dramatic attempt to overhaul everything. Those events showed that what I call "demosclerosis" held, if anything, an even more powerful grip on Washington than I originally thought. They raised a further question, too. If the ideas of demosclerosis are right, what happens next? The first version of this book focused mainly on the mechanisms of sclerosis. In this revised version, I've taken the opportunity to think about the lessons of the failed reforms, about the possible routes to better success, and about ways in which the country can develop a more productive and less pathological relationship with its government. The new title reflects this edition's larger compass.
No, "government's end" doesn't mean that change can never occur. It does mean that there are some principles we will need to understand about the malady that grips our government:
It is inherent. Democracies are necessarily vulnerable to what I call demosclerosis (though not uniquely vulnerable). The problem is encoded in democracy's DNA.
It is progressive. The disease is gradual, but its effect is cumulative. Resisting it requires constant effort and attention. You can't coast or relax.
It is cunning. Far from being easy to defeat, the syndrome exploits the voters' knee-jerk attempts to fight it. It ensnares the unwary in a trap baited with attractive subsidies and well-meaning programs, and it wraps itself in the language of fairness. It revels in hyperbolic political promises of "revolution" and in rhetorical attacks on "special interests," and turns such tactics to its advantage.
It is not someone else's fault. At government's end, political scapegoating of the customary sort ("Liberals did it!" "Conservatives did it!" "Business did it!" "Labor did it!" "Republicans did it!" "Democrats did it!") is obsolete. The problem is not any kind of "them." It is not the political group you most despise, whichever that may be. The problem is in the system, and you and I and everyone else, however innocent or virtuous we may believe ourselves to be, are deeply implicated.
I am not saying that nothing can be done. Far from it. I am saying that the voters will continue to be frustrated and ineffective until they understand what has gone wrong, and learn how to treat the syndrome rather than just shaking their fists at it. In the last two chapters of the book, I try to sketch the sorts of reforms that can be the foundation for a new and, I think, much more productive entente between Washington and the public. Highest of all the reforms on that list are the ones we will need to make inside our own heads. America's government has grown up, and, in a way, I'm trying to suggest how the citizenry can grow up with it.
A century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville came to America and concluded that democracy's Achilles' heel was tyranny of the majority. "The majority in the United States has immense actual power and a power of opinion which is almost as great," he said. "If freedom is ever lost in America, that will be due to the omnipotence of the majority driving the minorities to desperation and forcing them to appeal to physical force." But democracy, here and elsewhere, has not succumbed to majoritarian tyranny. In fact, America has probably done a better job protecting minorities than any other society in history.
A hundred years after Tocqueville, many people worried that democracy's vulnerability lay in its lack of resolve in the face of totalitarianism. Dictators, after all, could make decisions almost instantaneously, while democratic institutions dithered and deliberated. That fear, too, was misplaced. American democracy saw the dictators to their graves. It saw the Cold War through in a display of consistency and resolve that history can hardly match. Dithering democracies turned out to be much better than dictatorships at finding and correcting their mistakes before the mistakes became cataclysms. Nothing that follows in this book is meant to imply otherwise.
Today it appears that democracy's truer vulnerability lies closer to home—in the democratic public's tendency to form ever more groups clamoring for ever more goodies and perks and then defending them to the death. This drift may now represent the most serious single challenge to the long-term vitality of democratic government. One reason democracy didn't succumb to majoritarian tyranny or to the dictators' resolve was that people became worried about both threats and so managed to defeat them. The current threat is more insidious. It operates quietly and slowly from within. It is a crisis of American collective appetites, one in which well-meaning people and dedicated groups interact to produce collective stalemate.
This book is not an apocalyptic tirade. It is not about the imminent death of American civilization or democracy or prosperity; I believe in no such thing. It is, rather, a diagnosis and a warning. A nation of expectant whiners and angry blamers cannot hope to break out of the trap that I am about to describe.
|2||Mr. Olson's Planet||23|
|4||The Parasite Economy||67|
|7||The Reform Era||164|
|9||Adjusting the World||229|
|A Note on Sources||279|