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Cure Demosclerosis with a Government Jubilee April 29, 2007

Posted by federalist in Government, Special Interests.

One of the big problems with Democracy, as practiced in the United States, was outlined thirteen years ago by Jonathan Rauch and called Demosclerosis.  Excellent excerpts are below, but the basic problem is that democratic government can only grow; there is no natural impetus to eliminate any government program.

A straightforward cure for Demosclerosis might be a Constitutional Jubilee: A rule that no government law or act can live for more than 50 years.  Couple this with a constitutional “Read the Bills Act” that all laws must be read (perhaps aloud to prevent cheating) by every legislator voting for them.  In that case government would not be able to grow any more complex than the amount of law that a typical legislator can comfortably recite over the course of fifty years.  And every government activity would have to stand up to explicit scrutiny at least twice a century.

As the economist Mancur Olson has shown, society inherently generates goody-hunting, demand-making interest groups (lobbies, basically) much faster than it gets rid of them. The lobbies stream to Washington seeking to win and then defend some subsidy, regulation, or tax break. The more eagerly government scrambles to keep everybody happy, the less able it is to pluck these barnacles from its sides. So it succumbs to a kind of living rot.

Whatever else it may be, demosclerosis is not “gridlock.” If people really just wanted Washington to “get more done,” they should be much happier with government in the 1990s than in the 1950s, since by all relevant measures (spending, new laws, new regulations, workdays) government does far more now than it did then. In fact, however, the reverse is true. Polls show that, over the past 40 years, the level of dissatisfaction with government and the annual page count of new laws have moved in an almost exactly inverse relation to one another. The more government “gets done,” the less people like it. Washington’s problem is not that it goes the wrong speed, but that its wheels are out of alignment. To “get things done” is difficult, which is as it should be. The trouble is that to get things undone is an order of magnitude harder. And that, over time, is a crippling infirmity.

Human cells kill themselves so that the body as a whole can live. But old programs virtually never die. Built into both the system and society is a structural imbalance akin to the Olsonian accumulation of interest groups: Each government program and subsidy is begotten by, or begets, an interest group that cares much more about keeping it than anyone else cares about killing it. As a result, to a first approximation the American government is still doing more or less everything it ever did for anyone–all the way back to maritime subsidies from 1789.

For conservatives, the problematic result is that government accretes functions, usurping them from actors better able to perform them. But my goal in Demosclerosis was to show that government-friendly liberals should be just as concerned. Government can no more thrive while continuing to do everything it has ever done than General Motors could thrive while producing every car it has ever made (and heaven knows, GM tried). Today’s dysfunctional welfare system was designed for widows in the 1930s and has not been fundamentally overhauled since then. Agriculture subsidies were meant to be Depression- relief measures. Stuck with all of its first tries virtually forever, government loses the ability to end unsuccessful programs and try new ones. It fails to adapt and, as maladaptive things do, becomes too clumsy and incoherent to solve real-world problems.


1. federalist - April 30, 2007

Citizen X has a more cynical view on this subject: Essentially that politicians thrive by creating and exploiting divisions amongst their constitutents.

Every government program takes wealth, money, or power from one group and gives it to another. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing this fact and demanding that the government once again be chained down by Constitutional restraints, we fight with each other to get the proposed benefits.

2. federalist - June 14, 2007

S.A. Laden in a WSJ letter to the editor on May 15 (“The Fine Congressional Art of Ox-Goring”) clarifies that politicians themselves have incentives to work up the tyranny of special interests:

It is not Congress but congressmen (and senators) who want money. The way these solons get their money is by threatening to pass legislation that will gore someone’s ox. In order to protect his ox, the owner rushes to hire a lobbyist to show up, cash in hand, to make contributions to “friendly” legislators.

Let’s say that you and I are lawmakers. You threaten group A until they pay me to oppose you, and I’ll threaten group B until they pay you to oppose me. Together, we will drag this process out with committee meetings, public hearings, comment periods, and motions to cut off debate to give lobbyists time to mobilize “contributions.” We will also find opportunities to remain undecided on important issues (despite our large staffs of advisers and researchers) so that we can appear to be subject to influence by those representing the viewpoints and dollars of our “constituents.”

The Founders appear not to have anticipated this contemporary form of emolument, and the Constitution is powerless to check it. Legalized legislative bribery is likely the most corrosive form of corruption in our society today since it undermines our democratic institutions. This explains why Congress never seems to get anything done and why they agonize over every issue but take no action.

3. federalist - July 26, 2007

Another gem from Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech:

At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.

4. federalist - July 30, 2008

Senator Brownback is a perennial proponent of CARFA — a Commission on the Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies that does to government agencies and programs what BRAC did to military bases: Namely, enable the legislature as a whole to override the extreme incentives of legislative patrons to preserve programs that are duplicative, wasteful, or irrelevant.

5. federalist - January 3, 2013

Interesting: Jefferson wondered if all laws should expire after on generation (which he set at 19 years). Strangely, according to this description of his idea, the law was to include the Constitution itself, which does not seem practicable.

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