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Miracles and Politics

In one of the Facebook comments responding to my post about Paul Ryan, a friend suggested I read Jon Rauch’s book Government’s End. The specific Facebook friendly recommendation read: “does the most cogent job of explaining why the US is stuck in rut.” I tend to take such recommendations seriously, so I did.

The first quotation that stopped me was this one:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed. What you see now in Washington is basically what you will get for a very long time to come, even though many people, in fact probably a majority of people, may both wish and vote for something quite different.

Rauch presents himself, first, as a teller of hard truths. The hard truth Rauch tells is that the price we pay for stable societies is sclerosis—he calls it Demosclerosis to emphasize that it is a particular affliction of liberal democracies. He builds his theory out of Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, a book that argues “the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests.” Smaller groups will out organize larger groups, which means that smaller groups will have an outsized interest in politics. As groups proliferate, these groups will succeed in pursuing their parochial interests over the national majority. This will, in the end, lead to a government fully answerable to a myriad of interest groups and resistant to any will by the majority to resist those interests.

Rauch insists that this is not because there are bad people in government. Nor is it because of liberals or conservatives. Nor is it a failure of specific policies or electoral methods. The media is not to blame. The people are not at fault. Better education and better civic engagement will not solve the problem. No, for Rauch, this is simply the fact of government in the late 20th and now early 21st century. The best thing we can do, he writes, is to accept it.

Second, Rauch argues that his point is non-partisan and that both liberals and conservatives are equally indebted to and caught up in the system of Demosclerosis he describes.

 ” Many liberals have long assumed that Washington can do almost anything it puts its mind to, if only the right people are in charge.” Against the liberals, he argues that more and more programs will not solve the problem. Indeed, it makes it worse. Anyone who has witnessed well-meaning efforts to fight poverty, improve education, or protect the environment blossom and fail over the last century has to have sympathy with Rauch’s basic point. While countless individuals have been educated by state schools and fed by state programs, and while particular rivers are cleaner than they would be without state intervention, it is hard to argue that poverty is less or the environment is healthier. The overwhelming benefactor of the state’s enormous largesse has been the state and the people who feed off it.

Conservatives are more comfortable with the idea that government cannot solve all of our problems. But conservative rhetoric about limiting government ignores what Rauch sees as the basic fact: ” Demosclerosis turns government into more and more of a rambling, ill-adapted shambles that often gets in the way but can’t be eliminated.”  While conservatives may decry big government, they have refused and continue to refuse to honestly tell the voters what a smaller government would actually mean: “Less stuff for you.” As Rauch writes,

In their eagerness to make government-cutting sound easy and fun, conservatives have helped persuade the electorate that there is no reason to support any actual hard work of cutting anything except “waste” (read: somebody else’s programs). Thus has American conservatism become handmaiden to the “big government” that it so stridently condemns.”

Third, Rauch argues that there is simply no realistic alternative to Demosclerosis. It is simply part of Mancur Olson’s social scientific theory of the way the world works. Thus, the best thing we can do is abandon our unrealistic hope to change the system. We must expect less of government, and “reward politicians who chip away at the empire of the entrenched interests.” “Real-world success means not “returning government to the people” (or whatever) but simply putting additional pressure on particular lobbies at every opportunity, a less dramatic but far more attainable goal.” We need to reward incrementalism, small but determined efforts to free parts of the nation from sclerotic special perks.

Above all, then, Rauch argues that we must change our expectations of government. We should accept that government is a sclerotic and sickly beast that is poor at solving problems and honestly expect it to do less and less for us. This analytical and honest approach will bring about the “End of government,” namely the end of the expectation in and hope for a government that truly reflects the will and serves the needs of the people. It is important, Rauch writes, for “Americans of the broad center not to expect miracles.”

Even as I was reading Rauch’s Government’s End, I was also reading Hannah Arendt’s essay What is Freedom? Near the end of this exceptional essay Arendt writes:

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which always happens automatically and therefore always must appear to be irresistible.

What Arendt reminds us is that the very kinds of automatic processes that in Rauch’s telling comprise the irreversible system of governmental sclerosis are, as human creations, changeable. It is precisely at those times when the government seems most automated and when disaster seems most unavoidable that salvation appears in the form of miracles.

In speaking of miracles, Arendt does not have in mind a deus ex machina. Instead, she affirms the basic fact of human life, that human beings are surprising and spontaneous. While it may seem an inviolable scientific law that humans in large groups don’t organize together in the common interest, at times they do. Such organizations happen, as they recently did in Egypt and Tunisia, and as they did in this country in the late 18th century. Social scientists will also be shocked and surprised by such uprisings of revolutionary common sense as they were in Egypt, because human beings are free. That means that humans are in the end unpredictable. What that means as well is that it is simply folly to say, as Rauch does, that our current situation cannot be reversed.

Of course it may be that Rauch’s conclusion is less folly than it is a sad hope. For all of Rauch’s talk of telling of hard truths, one cannot but also sense that Rauch finds the situation of Demosclerosis he describes oddly satisfactory. In his final section, titled “Why Dreams Must Be Buried,” Rauch writes:

In truth, this demise [of the dream of good government] is no disaster. The Social Security checks will still go out, the budget will still be passed (most years), and patchwork reforms and emergency bills will still be approved….In some ways, in fact, the death of the dream may be to the good. Americans tend to be obsessed with government. Liberals hunt for a governmental solution for every problem; conservatives hunt for a governmental cause for every problem…. All of them are governmentalists, in the sense that they define their ideologies and social passions in relation to government.

That Americans are governmentalists could also have its root in the fact that Americans love freedom. One basic premise of freedom is self-government, the insistence that we can as a people govern ourselves wisely and freely. To turn our back on government is to abandon not simply big government, but the ideal of freedom itself.

There are, of course, different ideas of freedom. Traditional liberals like Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, see freedom as something pursued in the private sphere. Government exists simply to protect our private pursuit of individual ends. For Arendt, however, and for Americans over the last 200 years, freedom has meant as well public freedom, the dream that we can, as a people, collectively create something meaningful and great.

I have deep respect for Rauch’s telling of hard truths. His book should be read. That is why it is this week’s weekend read. His account of demosclerosis may be truthful. It is a critique liberals and conservatives must take to heart. But his enthusiastic rejection of the miracle of political freedom is decidedly less realistic.

Read an excerpt of Government’s End here. Better yet, download Government’s End on either Amazon.com or an Itunes. Or support a used bookstore and order it here.

-RB

Posted on 17 August 2012 | 3:48 pm

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