The U.S. Government Is Too Big to Succeed

The next president will be impelled and empowered to reform it.


America has painted itself into a corner.  The nation is faced with trillion-dollar deficits, but most political leaders are unwilling to propose real solutions for fear of alienating voters who want it all. Special interests maintain a death grip on the status quo, making it hard to fix things that everyone agrees are broken.

Where is a path out?

Little has emerged from the campaign season to address the reality that government is unsustainable in its current form. Conservative candidates pledge smaller government, but no candidate has solutions to crippling healthcare costs. Pledging to create "a leaner government," President Obama has asked Congress to reinstate presidential authority to reorganize federal agencies. Rearranging the deck chairs will do almost nothing, however, to rescue the foundering ship.

Insiders say changing the system is hopeless. No democracy has ever been effective at clawing back promises. America can't even purge benefits that long ago outlived their usefulness--like farm subsidies from the 1930s. Somehow we'll muddle through. Doesn't it always work that way?

Change is not a remote contingency, however. The next president will likely have an historic opportunity, thrust upon him by necessity, to remake the operating system of government. It's time to get ready for tough choices.

Big Change, Around the Corner

Change occurs not incrementally but in big shifts. The relative stability over the past half century is misleading. What appears to be an immutable way of governing, according to political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, is just a temporary lull between episodes of big change, which they call "punctuated equilibrium."

A society hums along for a few decades, as pressures build up in one area or another. Then, because of a scandal or some outside crisis, the status quo gives way to this accumulated pressure. At that point, like the "stick slip" phenomenon of earthquakes, the tectonic plates shift in dramatic ways, changing the social contract and political equilibrium. Who would have thought that a man who set himself on fire in Tunisia would have unleashed the Arab spring?

This pattern is revealed clearly in American history. Over the past 100 years, America has made three dramatic shifts in the role of government: The Progressive era at the turn of the last century, ending laissez faire; the New Deal in the 1930s, instituting social safety nets; and the rights revolution of the 1960s. Each of these represented a radical expansion of the reach of government into society.

The challenge of the 21st century is to pull government back from daily choices while still allowing it to provide regulatory oversight and safety nets. We must discipline government's appetite for social control, and push it away from the heaping table of unaffordable mandates and bloated regulation.

But the inertial forces of government, as the cynics suggest, don't often turn back towards self-discipline. The parallels to history are unsettling. The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century BC, famously outlined the cycles of government from monarchs to aristocracies to democracies and back again. Each form of government works well until it loses its founding values--generally when heirs grow fat and greedy--and is then overthrown. Democracy failed, Polybius wrote, "once people had grown accustomed to eating off others' tables and expected their daily needs to be met."

The problem of "collective action" -- getting people together to act in the common interest -- is notoriously difficult. Short-term selfishness prevents any significant change until, Polybius would predict, it's too late. The people who inhabit our national and state capitols, not only politicians but bureaucrats and special interest lobbyists, see themselves as agents, not principals. The job is to do what their "base" wants, not do what they think is right. Interest groups continue to cling to the status quo, even though they know something has to give.

Like it or not, America will change its way of governing. The growing crisis of authority will force us to start over. But how?  Change in a crisis usually follows a new vision of a better society, often overthrowing either a tyrant or a discredited social norm.  Identifying the culprit requires answering this question: What is it that prevents a fundamentally sound society from making practical choices?

Presented by

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author, and the chair of Common Good. He most recent book is The Rule of Nobody.

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