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10.01.10

Don't Destroy Government, Use It

If the machinery of government is all gummed up, it doesn’t much matter which party is at the controls, says Will Marshall, president of a centrist political think tank.

Recurrent outbursts of public anger against “big government” are a fixture of American politics. Partly, such sentiments are baked into the cake of America’s classically liberal founding ideas. But as Philip Howard points out, the relentless addition (hardly ever subtraction) of new laws, programs and regulations both bloats government and renders it less and less capable of solving new problems. If the machinery of government is all gummed up, it doesn’t much matter which party is at the controls. No wonder voters get mad, and discouraged.

So Philip is onto something here. Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations, and Jonathan Rauch, in Demosclerosis, explored this phenomenon in depth. So why am I not quite ready to sign onto his manifesto?

One reason is that it has a libertarian ring, in my ears anyway. I can imagine it going down much easier among Tea Partiers than, say, netroots lefties, or even pragmatic, center-left types like me. Yet progressives have, if anything, more reason to worry about the incapacitation of government than conservatives. We actually want to use the damn thing, not just disable it.

If in our highly litigious society every attempt to execute a vaguely worded law winds up in court, won't that just make the problem worse? 

Besides, demanding more limited government doesn’t solve Philip’s problem, because merely circumscribing government’s role would not deal with the layers of programmatic sediment that have built up over the years.

The argument that individual responsibility is the antidote to demosclerosis (what Rauch calls the hardening of democracy’s arteries) likewise strikes me as tilting the argument toward a presumption against public action. Government isn’t just a vehicle for distributing goods (fairly or not) from one group of Americans to another. It’s also a means by which we take collective responsibility for tackling common problems.

Progressives should favor scraping the barnacles off government’s hull so that it can respond more quickly and effectively to people and communities in need. Getting rid of obsolete programs, subsidies, and agencies is overdue, but not only because it might mean a less obtrusive and cheaper government. It also might mean—I think should mean –more fiscal space for public investment in infrastructure, science, education, environmental protection, and other public goods.

Philip’s notion that laws should enshrine general principles and purposes, and not seek to micromanage society, is immensely appealing in the abstract. It could, however, imply a large shift of power from legislators to regulators and the courts. If in our highly litigious society every attempt to execute a vaguely worded law winds up in court, won't that just make the problem worse? 
 

Philip’s argument for decentralization is also a little tricky, especially when applied to education. I'm all for devolving responsibility from central school bureaucracies to individual schools, charter or otherwise. But I'm also in favor of enhancing the federal government's role in setting and enforcing higher standards for pre-K through 12, especially in public schools that serve poor communities.         
   

On his central point, however, Philip is absolutely right. The accumulation of laws and bureaucracy over time weighs heavily on all of us. Before we can debate whether government should do more or less, we need to ensure it has the wherewithal and capacity to perform essential tasks well.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a centrist political think tank.