Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better

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From healthcare to workplace conduct, the federal government is taking on ever more responsibility for managing our lives. At the same time, Americans have never been more disaffected with Washington, seeing it as an intrusive, incompetent, wasteful giant. The most alarming consequence of ineffective policies, in addition to unrealized social goals, is the growing threat to the government’s democratic legitimacy. Understanding why government fails so often—and how it might become more effective—is an urgent ...

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Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better

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From healthcare to workplace conduct, the federal government is taking on ever more responsibility for managing our lives. At the same time, Americans have never been more disaffected with Washington, seeing it as an intrusive, incompetent, wasteful giant. The most alarming consequence of ineffective policies, in addition to unrealized social goals, is the growing threat to the government’s democratic legitimacy. Understanding why government fails so often—and how it might become more effective—is an urgent responsibility of citizenship. In this book, lawyer and political scientist Peter Schuck provides a wide range of examples and an enormous body of evidence to explain why so many domestic policies go awry—and how to right the foundering ship of state.

Schuck argues that Washington’s failures are due not to episodic problems or partisan bickering, but rather to deep structural flaws that undermine every administration, Democratic and Republican. These recurrent weaknesses include unrealistic goals, perverse incentives, poor and distorted information, systemic irrationality, rigidity and lack of credibility, a mediocre bureaucracy, powerful and inescapable markets, and the inherent limits of law. To counteract each of these problems, Schuck proposes numerous achievable reforms, from avoiding moral hazard in student loan, mortgage, and other subsidy programs, to empowering consumers of public services, simplifying programs and testing them for cost-effectiveness, and increasing the use of “big data.” The book also examines successful policies—including the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and airline deregulation—to highlight the factors that made them work.

An urgent call for reform, Why Government Fails So Often is essential reading for anyone curious about why government is in such disrepute and how it can do better.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Schuck (Emeritus, Yale Univ.; Foundations of Administrative Law, 2012, etc.) undertakes "to explain and perhaps to help solve" the myriad failures of government, in which a majority of citizens have little faith or confidence. The author's systematic and multifaceted analysis may come as a surprise to those who accept the quick answers provided by references to "political gridlock" or the "division of power." Schuck insists that foisting blame on government often reflects a failure by citizens to acknowledge their own roles. "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 do it well." Achieving political support to establish policies, however, will not be sufficient to make them work. Schuck delves deep into the relations among the different elements, and he points out the inability to repeal what he considers outdated, even wasteful legislation—e.g., the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (aka, Jones Act, regulating shipping between American ports), the World War II tax subsidy to employer health insurance contributions and formula-based federal assistance to school districts. The author also dissects the widespread mismanagement of programs and duplications of effort, and he shows how the federal government has grown fivefold since the 1960s, with an attendant growth at the state and local levels. Schuck recognizes the conflicts that arise from the division of powers, but he emphasizes overlaps between the branches and the effects each has on the others. The author presents and considers a wide variety of solutions, including transformation in the political party system and constitutional-level reforms. Ultimately, he writes, "I have shown that [the] relationship between government's ambition and its failure is grounded in an inescapable, structural condition: policy makers' meager tools and limited understanding of the opaque, complex social world that they aim to manipulate." A substantial analysis of the causes and failures of government functioning.
From the Publisher

Honorable Mention for the 2015 PROSE Award in Government & Politics, Association of American Publishers

"[A] sweeping history of policy disappointments."--David Leonhardt, New York Times

"In Why Government Fails So Often, Peter H. Schuck takes up this vital question in what amounts to a systematic survey of the limits of American public administration. It is a profound book, and a sobering one. . . . Peter H. Schuck has written an essential manual for 21st-century policy makers."--Yuval Levin, Wall Street Journal

"Schuck does a beautiful job of laying out all the problems with government intervention. . . . [T]here are many gems in this book."--David Henderson, Econlog

"Schuck makes a compelling case that many domestic programs, including those that have considerable public support among Republicans as well as Democrats, deliver benefits at costs that are much higher than necessary and contain damaging unintended consequences."--Glenn Altschuler, Boston Globe

"Anyone who wants clear insight into government's modern wayward momentum, and its toll on society, should hear Peter Schuck. . . . His recommendations for change are refreshing."--Colorado Springs Gazette

"This lively and authoritative account of government failure deserves to be read by advocates of all political persuasions. . . . This admirable work offers compelling evidence that government might do far better by doing far less."--Gene Epstein, Barron's

"Peter Schuck's new book Why Government Fails So Often provides a thoughtful if pessimistic analysis."--Laura Tyson, Project Syndicate

"Peter Schuck's Why Government Fails So Often is one of the most important books of the year and may be one of the most important books of the decade. Although I have seen this prolific author's name over the years, I had never read any of his work. My loss. Fortunately, I have read every page--including endnotes--of his latest book, and it is a tour de force."--David R. Henderson, Regulation

"[Why Government Fails So Often] is a timely book in light of the steep declines in the public's regards for government, a Congress that is increasingly hostile to federal programs, and a civil service whose morale keeps sinking lower with every survey. Schuck's analysis helps explain why the government is so reviled and thus helps us think about remedial steps and the kinds of policies that should be avoided in the future."--Timothy B. Clark, Government Executive

"Very highly recommended for academic and community library Political Science collections, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better is an impressive work of meticulous scholarship that is so well written and presented that it is equally accessible for political science students and non-specialist general readers with an interest in understanding the mechanics, development, and implementation issues concerning governmental policies on the federal level."--Jack Mason, Midwest Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691161624
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2014
  • Pages: 488
  • Sales rank: 198,537
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter H. Schuck is the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University. He is the author or editor of many books, including Agent Orange on Trial, Meditations of a Militant Moderate, Diversity in America, and Understanding America. Before joining the Yale faculty, he was an official in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and practiced law in Washington, DC, and New York.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
CHAPTER 1: Introduction 1
PART 1: The Context of Policy Making 37
CHAPTER 2: Success, Failure, and In Between 39
CHAPTER 3: Policy-Making Functions, Processes, Missions, Instruments, and Institutions 64
CHAPTER 4: The Political Culture of Policy Making 91
PART 2: The Structural Sources of Policy Failure 125
CHAPTER 5: Incentives and Collective Irrationality 127
CHAPTER 6: Information, Inflexibility, Incredibility, and Mismanagement 161
CHAPTER 7: Markets 198
CHAPTER 8: Implementation 229
CHAPTER 9: The Limits of Law 277
CHAPTER 10: The Bureaucracy 307
CHAPTER 11: Policy Successes 327
PART 3: Remedies and Reprise 369
CHAPTER 12: Remedies: Lowering Government's Failure Rate 371
CHAPTER 13: Conclusion 408
Notes 413
Index 463

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2015

    Superb and in-depth analysis of why government fails. Unfortuna

    Superb and in-depth analysis of why government fails. Unfortunately the prognosis isn't good; the author makes it seem like most things that government does aren't done well, although he describes a few great successes. The recommendations for making government better, by the author's own admission, will just improve things around the edges, but not lead to better government through and through. This leaves one unsolved question: why do northern European countries (and Canada, Australia and New Zealand) rank so much better in so many measures of good governance; what are they doing that we're not? The author should answer that question, too, but he doesn't.

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  • Posted August 1, 2014


    Tale of two books. Excellent analysis of failures. Due to moral hazards, unintended consequences, perverse incentives, et al. Short list of successes full of partial successes and "questionable" successes. Unsatisfying recommendations for success. Tinker around the edges and change Constitution to decrease federalism. Mentioned proclivity for immediate benefits with long-term costs but no recommendation. Most problems mentioned seem systemic with government but the author says big government is hear to stay.

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