Beware 'Big Fixes'

>Our national government has been on a "comprehensive reform" jag for many years now.  Michael Lind wrote an excellent column in the Washington Post recently about the problems with "big fixes." He argues:

... comprehensive reform is problematic [because] it assumes an ability to foresee problems and fix them in advance -- a skill not necessarily found among mere mortals. The longer the time horizon, the greater the hubris of those who claim to be solving problems not just for today but for generations to come.

That's often all too true.  Big fixes of the past -- Medicare, Social Security, tax cuts -- have become problems of the present in part due to the hubris that created them. Many defenders of these initiatives now can't tolerate any major changes to them.

Why does this happen? Answers include a government prone to overreaching and overpromising. 

Our governing class -- both liberal and conservative variants of it -- is beset now by the "hubris of professionals." Professionals often argue in overly ambitious ways with narrow competency and produce solutions with unanticipated problems. The unaffordability of the recently enacted health care reforms touted by liberals in Massachusetts is a recent example, as is the controversy spawned by George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind. Both are examples of ambitious plans producing unanticipated problems.
 
Political circumstances now encourage big fixes at the national level. Partisan rule in government does not last long, causing Republicans during the Bush presidency and Democrats under Obama to push as many large agenda items through Congress as quickly as possible. These efforts were cheered on by partisan supporters who have no shortage of ideological enthusiasm for big fixes.
 
Modern presidents have learned that their political capital is often in short supply and they try to strike while the iron is hot. This produces hastily enacted big legislation.

Big changes, in contrast, need be the product of careful reflection, cross-partisan deliberation, and incremental experimentation. Washington, D.C. doesn't do that anymore. The quality of governance suffers. As an alternative, Lind suggests:

Instead of striding boldly into the future, we should grope our way cautiously forward, ever ready to back up upon encountering an obstacle and always prepared to consider an alternative path if the road is blocked, or to abandon the effort and simply live with frustration if there is no way ahead. Instead of aspiring to achieve irrevocable, comprehensive reform by the second Monday of next month, let's consider reforms that are piecemeal and reversible if we discover they do not work.

Well stated.

Presented by

Steven Schier

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .

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