I'm with Fukuyama on this point

In a discussion of how the American system of checks-and-balances and federalism produces wildly inefficient legislation, Fukuyama notes that: "Congress created fifty-one separate programs for worker retraining, and eighty-two projects to improve teacher quality." (p. 497)

I have been making this point even before reading this latest work of Fukuyama's. But he has an interesting perspective on why this occurs.

The problem appears to me as a multiplayer prisoner's dilemma (see Schelling). To take an example: whatever level of taxation one prefers, from zero all the way up to 90% tax brackets for the very rich, it is surely preferable for everyone (except tax accountants) that the level of taxation that winds up being chosen be collected as efficiently as possible. You might hate paying 40% of your income to the taxman, but if you were going to do so, surely you would like to do so without having to undergo a lot of work on your own part in order to pay that tax, right? But the American political system, as it operates today, seems designed to collect 40% of your income in the most complicated way possible. And as I have noted in reference to the ACA, we could have gotten much more widespread coverage with a bill that simply said, "If your income is below X, The government will pay for your health insurance." Even if you oppose all welfare redistribution policies, I think you ought to prefer one that redistributes with a minimum of bother, rather than one that redistributes with a maximum of bother.

My own preference would be for worker-retraining and teacher-improvement programs to be implemented at a much more local level (the importance of local knowledge: see Hayek, as well as Catholic social thought on subsidiarity). The federal government should intervene in these issues only to the extent that it redistributes some tax revenues from the richer to the poorest states, to allow the poorer states the resources to implement these goals. But if these things are going to be handled at the federal level, I would much prefer Congress authorized a single agency to deal with each, and empowered that agency to do so.

Fukuyama contends that these legislative Rube Goldberg devices we create arise primarily from the way our system of checks-and-balances and federalism have worked out in practice: multiple branches, agencies, and levels of government are involved with almost every political issue in the United States. Rather than working to limit government, as the founders had intended, this multiplicity of authorities has served to create a byzantine government.

Hmm, I wonder if anyone has recently authored a book contending that the rationalist design of the American founders could never have worked out in practice in they way they intended it to?


4 comments:

  1. Have you read The End of Government, by Rauch? Exactly on point, Public choice theory and gane theory applied to the federal govt and why it is so byzantine. I think you'd lfind it interesting.

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  2. I haven't, Ken. Thanks.

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  3. "Rather than working to limit government, as the founders had intended, this multiplicity of authorities has served to create a byzantine government."

    "Byzantine government"? I don't get the reference. But surely the system of checks and balances is better than a system without them.

    "Hmm, I wonder if anyone has recently authored a book contending that the rationalist design of the American founders could never have worked out in practice in they way they intended it to?"

    Shameless self-promotion at its finest. I've read the book and your example about how First Amendment absolutists like myself would react if we were to imagine a waiting period and registration as a juxtaposition to current Second Amendment really made your thesis understandable (it was another one of those "holy ****" moments for me).

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  4. But surely the system of checks and balances is better than a system without them.

    Not necessarily. In his essay "The Perils of Presidentialism", the sociologist Juan Linz pointed out that presidential democracies, where the legislature and the executive are separately elected, are much more prone to devolving into authoritarianism or dictatorship than parliamentary systems.

    The basic problem is that when the executive and legislative branches come into conflict, the executive has independent democratic legitimacy, and so can make a publically-credible argument for overruling the legislature, particularly in a crisis. In fact, the US is the *only* presidential system that has managed to avoid a period of dictatorship! In contrast, in a parliamentary system, the executive is necessarily chosen by the party controlling the legislature, and so there's no possibility of the executive and the legislature representing opposed parties. So that route to coup d'etat is ruled out by construction.

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