Veronique De Rugy at National Review takes a step back from the specifics of the 2016 campaign this week and ponders the question of why Americans seem to increasingly distrust the ability (or perhaps even the intent) of the government to get anything done in a productive fashion. Interestingly, the initial subject of her inquiry was a similarly skeptical look at government competence from none other than Larry Summers. (Yes… that Larry Summers.) He’s questioning why our elected leaders did such a bad job at fixing the the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River and what that might signify in terms of larger societal problems.
At another level, though, our story may illustrate phenomena that go way beyond infrastructure. I’m a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can’t even fix a 232-foot bridge competently. Waiting in traffic over the Anderson Bridge, I’ve empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government.
Veronica chimes in with a rather hopeless note on how establishing accountability for a behemoth the size of the federal government is likely little more than an exercise in futility.
Unfortunately, I am afraid he is way too optimistic. For one thing, holding government officials accountable isn’t as easy as it sounds. How do you do that? The government spends $4 trillion a year. How do we monitor every government program out there and complain about what’s not working? By writing letters to your representative? How many regular people with deep pockets and a promise to finance a future campaign does it take to catch the attention of one’s representative? Do we hold them accountable by voting our representatives out of office if they don’t do anything about a given problem? The chances are that the next guy won’t be able to do any better.
There’s nothing there to disagree with, but it’s also far too granular in nature. While I sympathize with the author’s complaint about transparency and accountability, it’s predicated on an age old assumption which states that the American government could be a wonderful thing which does a bang up job if only we could keep a close enough eye on it and weed out the snakes in our garden who slither their way into positions of power.
I must respectfully disagree. This is one of those areas where many of our Founding Fathers demonstrated a great deal more wisdom than we see on display from today’s idealists. You see, they seemed to be aware of the fact that there aren’t just a few snakes in the garden. It’s pretty much all snakes. The only difference is that some of them take longer to grow (or at least reveal) their scales. In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson famously warned, “sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? ”
Not to dive too deep into the nihilism pool here, but there’s an argument to be made that every form of government attempted by man over the course of our entire history has been pretty much doomed to failure. This not because the theory in and of itself is flawed… all commonly seen forms of government look good on paper at first and embody ideas which might work pretty well. The problem is that these governments would need to be overseen by benevolent robots in order to continue functioning over the long run. This idea was embodied in the only partially humorous observation of Churchill when he said, Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
We frequently poke fun at (or flatly disparage) governmental theories such as communism and socialism. (And for good reason!) But even with their lack of individual opportunity, liberty or potential for growth, the fact is that you could successfully keep a lot of people alive for a very long time if those systems were implemented perfectly and in a sustainable fashion. The problem is… you can’t. As soon as you involve fallible human beings, the wheels begin to come off the wagon. That’s the underlying truth which recently prompted Glenn Reynolds to say, under capitalism, rich people become powerful. Under socialism, powerful people become rich.
I probably don’t need to explain that quote for you.
But there’s a hidden message about capitalism in general and our grand American Experiment in particular buried in that observation. Hard working, successful people in a capitalist, democratic republic such as our don’t just become rich. They do amass power. And, being human beings, a little money and a little power is never really enough for many Alpha type human beings. The trick is finding a way to ensure that achievement and drive are rewarded, but that the rewards don’t create too much inequity. You see, our system has inequality built into it. We’re fond of pointing out that America isn’t supposed to guarantee equality of outcome, but rather equality of opportunity. But the upshot of that is that we’ve built economic and social “power” inequality into the machinery from day one.
When a relative few do very well and a majority do, shall we say… less well, you’ve got the formula for discontent on your hands. Returning to the various theories of government I mentioned above, we should remember that historically, most governments fail sooner or later. And the more open and free the system of government was, the more likely it seemed to fall apart. In 507 B.C., Cleisthenes established the first true democracy of, by and for the people in Athens. It lasted less than 200 years before imploding. While it’s sad to say, the governments which lasted the longest tended to be the most top heavy and oppressive ones which were able to squash dissent, limit the flow of information and keep the unwashed masses in their place. The trick always seemed to be the ability to apply enough oppression to to maintain the status quo without making everyone so miserable that they showed up with pitchforks and torches to haul the ruling class off in tumbrils.
So let’s return to the original premise which began all of this. Why don’t we trust the government? Well… why would we? Our American theory of government is a constant tug of war between two teams and you really can’t trust either one of them for too long. The neo-liberals want a bigger, more intrusive government which will mandate equality and take care of everyone, but that inevitably leads to only government approved opinions, safe spaces, trigger warnings and book burning. The hard core conservatives want government to bugger off and get out of the way, but then the power shifts to the most aggressive who will eventually replace the workers with robots and sail off to live in their elite, assured longevity gated communities in low Earth orbit while everyone on the surface starves.
So in the meantime, we’re left walking a tightrope between the two. But what can you do? The only other choice is complete anarchy, and most of the people in the Mad Max movies didn’t make out very well either.