Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ignore these calls for an efficient manager to win the presidency

Besides the billions behind Michael Bloomberg, the main argument behind his potential candidacy is that he is an efficient manager who can get things done in Washington. Jay Cost explores the fallacies in this way of thinking about our government.
I think this is a naive view. Washington is "not working" not because it lacks strong and effective managers. Washington is "not working" because it was designed not to work when there is an absence of political consensus, which there is right now. Washington "fails to work" more often than not because ours is a diverse nation with many competing interests, and our Founders feared the possibility that one interest might railroad another. They thought that the best way to preserve our republican form of government would be to make political change next-to-impossible without a political consensus.

Mike Bloomberg is not going to "fix" any of this. He would probably make the government less capable of "doing things" because he is not affiliated with either of the country's best chances for consensus building: a political party. Journalists and DC pundits, for as much as they love having stuff get done in Washington, ironically seem to despise the parties - which serve as the centripetal forces in our centrifugal system. If our Constitution disperses power across different branches of government, a major purpose of our parties is to organize and cultivate a caucus of similarly minded people so that coordination across branches might be possible. The parties offer, without question, our best chance at the kind of coherent, responsible government that journalists and pundits claim to love. Their purpose is precisely to build consensus - first among like-minded officials across branches, second among the voters in an electoral campaign, and third among a majority in government. By making a third party candidate president of the United States, you put a temporary end to the possibility of this kind of coherence. After all, everybody in Congress would want President Bloomberg defeated in the next election. Just how much does anybody think he would get done? (emphasis in the original)
I think Cost is exactly right that people ignore that our government was deliberately established so not much could get done unless the majority of people wanted it to be done. The Founders worked hard to establish all the checks in our system that you learned (I hope) about in school. During great national crises presidents, particularly those with firm party control of Congress, such as Lincoln and FDR, have been able to pass many bills through, but the norm is actually that it takes a long time to pass any major bill if the two parties are not in agreement about the policy.

In addition, we have a bureaucracy that, as James Q. Wilson, argues in his classic study, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, of the institutional reasons why the government bureaucracies usually operate in what seems to us a totaly inefficient manner, especially compared to private organizations. The incentives are different for public service employees. And the fault often lies with the deliberately ambiguous language that legislators put into bills, usually so that they can muster a majority to pass them. This is why we have seen so many failed efforts by president after president to come to Washington and get it to work more efficiently.