Is America Ungovernable?
Arnold Kling relays the case that many of you who follow the lefty blogs have probably seen:
It’s the latest meme. The U.S. is ungovernable, because of
a) Senate procedures
b) Republican obstructionism
d) special interests
I’ve seen it from Marc Ambinder, Steven Pearlstein, and others. I’m too lazy to copy links, but my guess is that you have seen it, too.
Well, there are two different questions here that liberals conflate inappropriately:
1) America is ungovernable.
2) Structural government issues prevent the government from getting anything done.
Yes, all the points above explain why #2 is true. But even if all that were “fixed”, #1 would be true, for the very reason Hayek states:
To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.
-Friedrich August von Hayek
To put it simply, it is impossible for a bunch of lawyers and bureaucrats in Washington DC to adequately govern — aka rule — the activities of 300 million Americans. The system — “system” meaning free actions of individuals, not meaning directed and ruled action — is so complex that the best any government can hope to do is to set very general rules making force or fraud illegal*, and set up a fair and just court system to arbitrate. Washington simply cannot integrate the information needed to make decisions at that level effectively.
To be fair, Arnold Kling reaches the same point, but he expands more fully on the idea of decentralization and the idea of federalism or competitive government as an answer. I suspect he does so because he believes competitive government will result in libertarian government — as those who earn refuse to “join” the governments of those who rely on handouts, and thus the non-libertarian governments cannot sustain their goals. This is partly true for territory-based governments (becoming more true as the territory shrinks), and undoubtedly true for non-territory-based governments.
But I find that argument** to have one major weakness. The idea of federalism and local control is largely predicated on the idea that the people in Washington aren’t very good at making decisions for me, and that by moving those decisions closer to me it’s a lot more likely that the decisions my government makes for me are effective ones. But should government make my decisions at all?
Personally, regardless of whether they make good or bad choices, I do not outsource my decision-making to the government. Even if they will make good choices, I do not want them choosing for me. This is a moral statement, and it is just as true of the government of Washington DC as of Sacramento as of Laguna Niguel, CA. It is true that I have more control over the government of Laguna Niguel than of DC, but fundamentally that doesn’t change the fact that my one vote is not determining my decision — it is weighed against the votes of others who do not have the right to decide for me.
If the US is ungovernable, so is the state of California, and so is the city of Laguna Niguel. No matter how small of a government you draw, it cannot have all the information it needs to make decisions for me. Fundamentally, decisions are the marriage of facts and values, and although any government may have access to the facts, it does not have access to my values. Therefore they do not have the information necessary to make decisions for me.
Liberals are upset that the government is structurally biased towards inaction. But action doesn’t equal governance. For something to be governable, the governing authority must have access to both the facts and the values of those it governs. Unfortunately since the latter is never possible, it substitutes its own values (dictatorship) or the average/majority values (democracy). Either is insufficient, and thus America is ungovernable.
* I will, for a moment, leave my anarchist philosophy and accept rules against force or fraud. While one would say that another’s right to swing their fist ends at my nose, one could also easily argue that if I used either force or fraud to entice another to make a decision, I am taking their ability to make a decision away. I say above that decisions are a marriage of facts and values, and if I try to deceive another about the facts of a situation, that is an immoral interference with their decision.
** I am open to the suggestion that the argument I rebut is a strawman. I tried to be fair about summarizing the federalist argument (since I used to make it myself), but there’s always the risk I’ve botched it.