23 February 2010

Deadlock and governability

Yesterday I was pleased by the Economist's recent article about America not being "ungovernable".

(Can we stop and get one thing out of the way, in the name of precision and accuracy in language? Somalia is ungovernable. Vast swaths of Afghanistan are ungovernable. The deep jungles of the Amazon are ungovernable. Governments literally are not functioning in those places. Nations are unable to exercise authority over those areas.

We have government out the ears in America. They exercise control over more activities of more Americans than ever before.  People may not like the governing that's going on, but it's definitely happening.  America has never been more governed.)

In a podcast today they mentioned a counter-argument of sorts to their own story, which is that the evidence for ungovernability has nothing to do with the failure of the Obama administration to enact its sweeping health care or climate agendas, but that America isn't very good at addressing long-standing structural problems like entitlements.

I'd counter that the government hasn't been able to do anything about those problems largely because the American people don't want anything done.  Oh sure, if you ask them "do you want to fix this problem?" we'll all say "yes."  But if you actually ask them about specific ways to fix the problems — raise taxes, cut benefits, raise the retirement age, cut defense spending, do less of this, require more of that — suddenly the support evaporates.  It's not just that we don't agree which is the best way to address the problem, it's that there isn't broad support for any of the potential solutions.  All of the irrational, wasteful, profligate things the government does are pretty popular.

So yeah, a democracy is responding to the will of the people.  The people's will doesn't make much sense and is viewed by many to be somewhere between silly and catastrophically dumb.  But that's how America is supposed to work.  If the populace doesn't agree on what should be done, then neither can the government, and nothing gets done.

The problem isn't one of "governability." It's that the people don't want to make hard choices.  If anything the government of the past century has only made this worse by promising people that they can make those choices later or possibly never have to make them at all.  To the extent that's the case then I don't see how you can blame it on cloture rules, or politicians with insufficient party loyalty, or voters with too much party loyalty, or the impact of talk radio and cable news, or any of the other things I've heard bemoaned in this debate

Compounding the problem, we've raised the last several generations of children to believe there aren't any trade-offs in their personal lives either: they're all precious snowflakes who can do it all and everyone is a winner and everyone gets a trophy for showing up and blah blah blah. TANSTAAFL.

(Well that turned out rantier than I expected when I started this post.)

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