Government works well. Or at least it could work well, say liberals, if only we had fewer of those pesky Republican obstructionists, less corporate influence in politics, and more transparency, among other things. Really, the list of “other things” is nearly endless. In other words, in the ideal situation, government can be both effective and efficient, but things are never ideal. Government is not often effective and almost never effective and efficient. This mythological idea of a large, but well-oiled, government, whether it be our own or in Europe, is little more than a platonic ideal that can never exist in reality as long as fallen man is at the helm.
The Economist recently posted an article detailing just how similarly disorganized, contentious, short-sighted, and dishonest politicians are in Europe and the United States.
FOR the past three years America’s leaders have looked on Europe’s management of the euro crisis with barely disguised contempt. In the White House and on Capitol Hill there has been incredulity that Europe’s politicians could be so incompetent at handling an economic problem; so addicted to last-minute, short-term fixes; and so incapable of agreeing on a long-term strategy for the single currency.
Those criticisms were all valid, but now those who made them should take the planks from their own eyes. America’s economy may not be in as bad a state as Europe’s, but the failures of its politicians—epitomised by this week’s 11th-hour deal to avoid the calamity of the “fiscal cliff”—suggest that Washington’s pattern of dysfunction is disturbingly similar to the euro zone’s in three depressing ways.
The first is an inability to get beyond patching up. The euro crisis deepened because Europe’s politicians serially failed to solve the single currency’s structural weaknesses, resorting instead to a succession of temporary fixes, usually negotiated well after midnight. America’s problems are different. Rather than facing an imminent debt crisis, as many European countries do, it needs to deal with the huge long-term gap between tax revenue and spending promises, particularly on health care, while not squeezing the economy too much in the short term. But its politicians now show themselves similarly addicted to kicking the can down the road at the last minute[...]
The reason behind this lamentable outcome is the outsize influence of narrow interest groups—which marks a second, unhappy parallel with Europe. The inability of Europeans to rise above petty national concerns, whether over who pays for bail-outs or who controls bank supervision, has prevented them from making the big compromises necessary to secure the single currency’s future. America’s Democrats and Republicans have proved similarly incapable of reaching a grand bargain; both are far too driven by their parties’ extremists and too focused on winning concessions from the other side to work steadily together to secure the country’s fiscal future.
The third parallel is that politicians have failed to be honest with voters. Just as Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande have avoided coming clean to the Germans and the French about what it will take to save the single currency, so neither Mr Obama nor the Republican leaders have been brave enough to tell Americans what it will really take to fix the fiscal mess. Democrats pretend that no changes are necessary to Medicare (health care for the elderly) or Social Security (pensions). Republican solutions always involve unspecified spending cuts, and they regard any tax rise as socialism. Each side prefers to denounce the other, reinforcing the very polarisation that is preventing progress.
What liberals need to understand is that these problems are not aberrations in secular politics and, short of a miracle, are not going to go away anytime soon. It doesn’t matter whether you are a European socialist or a Republican, government is prone to many of the same pitfalls. For liberals to cogitate upon their unblemished governmental ideal, they must gloss over the various human frailties common to all and ignore just how many links there are in the chain of politics that weaken and break, often at a moment’s notice.
There are two points, in particular, that must be confronted by the Left before they go on assuming that their utopian political model is sensible.
First of all, politicians are not gods, not even those who belong to the “good” party. They are painfully human in an often dehumanizing profession. Therefore, to believe that a small cadre of central planners are capable of deftly controlling people and their capricious markets just as sea captains steer their vessels through towering waves and stormy gales shows gross overconfidence in the players of our ridiculous political drama. Moreover, navigating with skill doesn’t just require that a captain arrive at port on time and without unnecessary expense, but, also, to arrive with minimal damage to the ship—that is, the people. Politicians can’t navigate the people without, at least, wasting their money, wasting their time, or jeopardizing their rights.
The fallibility of these supposed superheroes was made abundantly clear just this past week. The Senate voted on the fiscal cliff deal not after deliberating thoroughly and reasonably, but after only having the 154-page bill in hand for a mere three minutes. There’s no way that they read and digested any real portion of that bill before putting it to a vote. However, that haphazard process seems to be fairly normative. Much to the embarrassment of liberals, these erudite statesmen who allegedly tower above their fellow man are voting about as thoughtfully as a child pins the tail on the donkey. In his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore asked Democrat Congressman John Conyers how Congress could have passed a bill as monstrous as the Patriot Act, to which Conyers cooly replied, ”Sit down, my son. We don’t read most of the bills. Do you really know what that would entail if we were to read every bill that we passed?” He’s right. How can they, given the fact that bills are, on average, more than six times longer than they were in 1948? The longer the bill is, the more precise its language appears, which might sound like an advancement, but the truth is that a million precise articulations of a robust bill also provide a million niggling opportunities for partisan dispute, if not outright confusion.
Secondly, if liberals are going to complain about special interests manipulating the political process, then they need to abandon their idol of big, effective government once and for all, because this problem not only originates and is engendered by government but, as long as the fallenness of man persists, this problem will remain timeless and intractable. If greedy groups seeking influence is partly why your utopia has yet to come to fruition, then it’s time to just admit that it will never manifest, at least as long as secular political principles hold sway. James Madison wrote about this age-old problem of groups vying for political influence and perquisites in the Federalist No. 10: ”By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The truth is that the right to lobby the government is codified in the Constitution, but to hear liberals speak of the corporate influence in politics, one can almost imagine a corporate consortium barging into the House and Senate chambers way back when and holding innocent legislators hostage until they were granted the privileges they desired. That’s not what happened. Our legislators are not hapless victims here; they are enablers, wicked in their own right. No, it’s legislators and their granting of legally enforceable privileges, often to their corporate cronies, that are to blame. Sure, corporations seek to tilt the scales in their favor, so all the more reason to shut down the perquisite dispensary and limit government’s role to the barest essentials. The fact that government hasn’t found a solution to this problem only confirms just how impotent, inept, and, ultimately, unwilling most of our elected officials are to correct the problem.
Therefore, for liberals to blame corporate influence for our ineffectual government, without calling into greater question those public officials who “lower the branches” rife with low-hanging fruit, is guilty of one-dimensional thinking and lopsided reasoning. That would be like blaming only the alcoholic for his problems and not his parents or friends who gave him his first drink, encouraged his alcohol abuse, and funded his habit.
On a side note, for all the caterwauling about inveterate principles needing to be set aside in favor of fluidity, compromise, and pragmatism, I wonder what exactly is the matter with this long-standing quid pro quo between special interests and the interests of legislators and their respective parties? That’s practical politics at its finest, is it not? After all, votes and campaign dollars are needed to acquire power and remain in power and if it means promising an industry the perks it desires in exchange for said money and votes, then so be it. Besides, everyone else is doing it, and refusing to “play ball” could very well jeopardize the party’s viability and ruin one’s political career. According to standard thinking, the Ron Pauls of this world that stand their ground are stubborn mules holding up the political process, are they not?
By and large, politicians are willing to do and say anything for a vote and to preserve (and expand, if possible) their power and, by extension, the power of their friends. Even worse is the fact that they are often only feigning control of the situation, when, in reality, they don’t know what the heck they are doing or how to fix it. They aren’t superheroes or messiahs. They often vote on bills that they haven’t read and proceed to add on to our already-bloated legal structure as if it were a bureaucratic Winchester House. All they know to do is what their predecessors have done: pass bills with infinite stipulations that no one fully understands and make government bigger, more expensive and more burdensome to the average person while covering their own rears. This has always been true and remains true, both here and abroad, until people come to their senses a bit and temporarily push back. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, liberals still hope or expect the impossible—that, if moons align just so, then politics will largely cease being the capricious profession of deceivers, coercive tyrants, and childish, arrogant bickerers and will, with enough tinkering, be transformed into a paragon of efficiency, civility, and efficacy. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not going to happen.