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A great society, ill-served by its government

James Fallows’ cover story in The Atlantic, How America Can Rise Again, is worth a read. He talks about the current round of historical declinism, and notes that in many measures the culture of the U.S. is still a strong asset:

The simplest measure of whether a culture is dominant is whether outsiders want to be part of it. At the height of the British Empire, colonial subjects from the Raj to Malaya to the Caribbean modeled themselves in part on Englishmen: Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew went to Cambridge, Gandhi, to University College, London. Ho Chi Minh wrote in French for magazines in Paris. These days the world is full of businesspeople, bureaucrats, and scientists who have trained in the United States.

Today’s China attracts outsiders too, but in a particular way. Many go for business opportunities; or because of cultural fascination; or, as my wife and I did, to be on the scene where something truly exciting was under way. The Haidian area of Beijing, seat of its universities, is dotted with the faces of foreigners who have come to master the language and learn the system. But true immigrants? People who want their children and grandchildren to grow up within this system? Although I met many foreigners who hope to stay in China indefinitely, in three years I encountered only two people who aspired to citizenship in the People’s Republic. From the physical rigors of a badly polluted and still-developing country, to the constraints on free expression and dissent, to the likely ongoing mediocrity of a university system that emphasizes volume of output over independence or excellence of research, the realities of China heavily limit the appeal of becoming Chinese. Because of its scale and internal diversity, China (like India) is a more racially open society than, say, Japan or Korea. But China has come nowhere near the feats of absorption and opportunity that make up much of America’s story, and it is very difficult to imagine that it could do so—well, ever.

But Fallows is far less sanguine about the state of the federal government, noting that “one thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is ‘I wish we had a Senate like yours.’” The government’s stability and continuity, he argues, as ironically part of why it is so subpar today:

The most charitable statement of the problem is that the American government is a victim of its own success. It has survived in more or less recognizable form over more than two centuries—long enough to become mismatched to the real circumstances of the nation…

Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,” and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern “demosclerosis,” in a book of that name. He defined the problem as “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,” a process “like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.”

Fallows cites specific problems, not that novel to people who care about such things: The fact that Senate votes are absurdly nonproportional to population, the overuse of the filibuster, the stasis of gerrymandering on state and federal levels. I would add to that a massive top-down complexity. Democracy is not well-served when the country’s highest governing bodies routinely pass laws that are too long for any one person to read.

What I find disappointing in all this is that some of these problems routinely disadvantage the left, but the left by and large doesn’t have much to say about them. If Senate representation actually gave enough votes to people living in large cities, we would’ve passed health care reform by now. But the left also generally loves centralized government solutions, so I suppose that makes it hard to argue that the centralized government we have now is deeply flawed.

As for how to fix these massive structural problems: Fallows doesn’t seem to believe it can be fixed, just that we’ll muddle through. And maybe that’s realistic, but it’s also pretty depressing to contemplate. Personally, I’d be happy if people in the more populous states continued a modified version of Grover Norquist’s work, shrinking the federal government and working to supplant as many services as possible at the state and inter-state level. The goal would not be to drown the federal government in Grover’s bathtub, but simply to participate less in a federal government that takes a lot of their taxes and gives them way less votes than Wyoming. That could conceivably lead to some Constitutional amendments that might rejigger the Senate somehow. It’s a pipe dream, obviously. But given enough time, the rot in U.S. government could destroy what’s special about U.S. society, so it’s probably not a bad time for a little brainstorming.

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Tagged: politics

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