Government's End

From Chapter 1

The Trap

BETWEEN THE TIME when the results became clear and the moment when the new president-elect emerged to acknowledge his victory, two long hours passed. A crowd of fifty thousand stood waiting for their man in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas, shivering in bitterly cold weather that, being unseasonable, caught people in their shirtsleeves. Millions of members of the public waited, too. Younger people could barely remember a Democratic presidency and wondered how the first Democratic president-elect in sixteen years would sound. Their elders wondered whether the new man would show he had learned from his Democratic predecessors' mistakes.

At 11:22 P.M. central time, on November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton finally emerged, looking exhausted but happy. He had made history and he knew it. His speech was short and began with thank-yous for the crowd, the family, the voters, the running mate. Then came what was, in effect, the first substantive statement of the Clinton years. He said that he would "face problems too long ignored," and that people needed to be brought together "so that our diversity can be a source of strength." Then he said:

"I think perhaps the most important thing that we understand here in the heartland of Arkansas is the need to reform the political system, to reduce the influence of special interests and give more influence back to the kind of people that are in this crowd tonight by the tens of thousands. And I will work . . . to do that."

Campaigning against special interests, railing against them and deploring them and promising to break them, is a venerable American tradition. In 1948, President Harry Truman cried out from his railway car that his campaign was "a crusade of the people against the special interests," and the people cheered. In private, twenty years earlier, Calvin Coolidge warned his successor, Herbert Hoover, about the armies of interested parties who would be coming to see him. "You have to stand, every day, three or four hours of visitors," Coolidge said. "Nine-tenths of them want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile, they will start up all over again." Long before Coolidge, James Madison thought hard about how to contain the undue influence of what he called "faction," by which he meant "a number of citizens . . . who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." If he had known the term "special interest," no doubt he would have used it.

The curious thing is that ever since Coolidge's day, and especially since Truman's, interest-group activity has increased. The more the public complained and the more the politicians promised change, the more the lobbies seemed to thrive and the more powerful they seemed to become. And so the president-elect stood there in 1992, promising "to reduce the influence of special interests," as so many had promised before him.

Some years earlier, another young politician began a crusade against "special interests." Like Bill Clinton, he set out to transform government to something more effective, more forward-looking, more responsive. He was as determined as Bill Clinton, and also as bright (which was saying something). His name was David Stockman, and in those years, in the mid-1970s, he worked as executive director of the House Republican Conference, where his boss was a rather obscure moderate Republican named John Anderson. In 1975, out of the blue, he announced himself to the world with a brilliant and provocative article that opened a new conservative front in the war against big government. "The Social Pork Barrel," he called it.

"The vast increase in federal social welfare outlays," wrote Stockman in The Public Interest magazine, "has created in its wake a political maintenance system based in no small part on the cooptation and incorporation of Congress itself." Conservatives and liberals alike channeled social spending, not to those who most needed it or to the places where it would do the most good, but to all 435 congressional districts, in a rain of political manna. The maxims of real-world social spending included, "Don't close the money sluice no matter how outmoded the program," and--a concise formulation of political utilitarianism--"the greatest goodies for the greatest number." Urban-aid programs and housing programs and education programs had become for the 1970s what dams and bridges had been for the 1930s and 1940s. As a consequence, "what may have been the bright promise of the Great Society has been transformed into a flabby hodge-podge, funded without policy consistency or rigor, that increasingly looks like a great social pork barrel."

Stockman soon went on to become a Republican congressman in his own right, and so fiercely did his intellect and ambition burn on Capitol Hill that the new Republican president chose him to be the administration's budget director after the 1980 election. From that post, Stockman became general of the campaign that he had sketched in his article. He was the chief ideologue and strategist for what amounted to the first reformist conservative administration since the New Deal. He would cut, he promised, not "weak clients" but "weak claims." As the Reagan Administration began, he said: "We have to show that we are willing to attack powerful clients with weak claims. I think that's critical to our success-both political and economic success."

What actually happened was not what Stockman had in mind. "In 1986," he wrote in the late months of that year, in a postscript to an angry book that he called The Triumph of Politics, "the federal government again spent 24 percent of the GNP, compared to a pre-1980 norm of about 20 percent. Why? Because the White House has no semblance of a program or political will to spend any less." The powerful clients, he said, had won. After his book was published, little was heard from Stockman.

At about the same time, however, another reformer stood before a small group of conservative activists and explained to the frustrated audience how, despite Ronald Reagan's failure, the fight against entrenched government could yet be won. I happened to be there that night, and was fascinated by the peculiar but compelling visitor. Newt Gingrich talked grandly and abstractly, and seemed as eccentric as his name. Yet his magnetism was apparent and his unruly intelligence dazzling. The problem until then, he explained, had been failure to think "outside the box." Whereupon he drew a box: a matrix of dots, three by three. He reminded his audience of the old puzzle: connect all of these dots by drawing only four lines. The trick is that you can't solve the puzzle unless you draw lines that extend beyond the boundaries of the matrix. But if you break out of bounds, he said, you can solve it.

In 1995, he got his chance. When he became speaker of the House, Gingrich was determined to do from Capitol Hill what David Stockman had tried to do from the White House. The result, to Gingrich's credit, included two landmark reforms of recalcitrant and dysfunctional federal programs: farm subsidies and welfare. Elsewhere, however, Gingrich's failure was complete and comprehensive. Indeed, for his party it proved catastrophic. By 1999, Gingrich was a memory.

The contours of Gingrich's assault on Washington were different from those of Stockman's assault, and both differed sharply from Bill Clinton's attempts to change things, most notably the health-care reform effort of 1993 and 1994. Yet the fate of all three of the reformers was more or less the same. Washington remained much as it had been before. ("Only more so," a wag might add.) Stockman retired denouncing his own failure, Gingrich was unceremoniously dumped by his party; Clinton's fate was, in some respects, the saddest of all. Clinton entered office as a reformer, promising a new dynamism in government; he left office as a manager whose domestic policy traded in microscopic initiatives. In a sense, the man who stood on the steps of the Old State House that night in 1992, who promised to "reduce the influence of special interests and give more influence back to the kind of people that are in this crowd tonight," packed up and left town long before Bill Clinton did. As Clinton left the stage, no viable reform movement, conservative or liberal or anything else, remained on the field.

No doubt the future would bring more reformers, more cries to take up arms against "special interests" and return government "to the people." Nonetheless, the twenty or so years that began with Ronald Reagan's election shed a cold and brilliant light on what it is that government's would-be reformers, of whatever stripe, are up against. Change is as easy to promise as ever. But it has grown a good deal harder to deliver.

* * *

This book is about the side effects of the postwar style of politics, a style that emphasizes interest-group activism and redistributive programs. Because the book emphasizes the darker side of the pressure groups and the programs, it may be most congenial to conservatives, who have always resented programs that take money out of some pockets and put it into others. I hope, though, that nonconservatives will also think hard about what follows, since the argument itself is neither partisan nor ideological. To understand government's debilitation and see that it is a serious problem, you don't need to believe that government is evil and all programs should be abolished. Far from it. Redistributive programs are in use everywhere, and should be. Aid to the unemployed provides security against the most bruising trauma of capitalism; aid to the elderly provides security in old age. Aid to students can help open doors and raise incomes. Aid to veterans repays a public debt to those who serve. All of those goals are worthy, and all of those programs serve real social purposes. The problem is understanding and then minimizing the groups' and programs' cumulative side effects, which turn out to be both nasty and inherent.

By definition, government's power to solve problems comes from its ability to reassign resources, whether by taxing, spending, regulating, or simply passing laws. But that very ability energizes countless investors and entrepreneurs and ordinary Americans to go digging for gold by lobbying government. In time, a whole industry--large, sophisticated, professional, and to a considerable extent self-serving--emerges and then assumes a life of its own. This industry is a drain on the productive economy, and there appears to be no natural limit to its growth. As it grows, the steady accumulation of subsidies and benefits, each defended in perpetuity by a professional interest group, calcifies government. Washington loses its capacity to experiment and adapt, and so becomes increasingly prone to failure.

More: as the client groups proliferate and professionalize, government becomes less coherent and more difficult for politicians and voters to control. Like the virus that mutates to stay ahead of the latest drugs, programs change, but in ways that keep themselves alive and their clients happy, rather than in ways that solve any particular social problem with any particular degree of effectiveness. If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point: or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. After a 150-year period of relative modesty and quiescence, and then a fifty-year period of high ambition and rapid expansion, government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.

That is what I mean by "government's end." Not that government is over; obviously, it is not. In a way, in fact, I mean just the opposite. I mean "end" in a sense more akin to "destination," although certainly no one intended to wind up here. Government has evolved to a steady-state condition from which it cannot be dislodged by any tolerable amount of political brute force. What you see now in Washington is basically what you will get for a very long time to come, even though many people, in fact probably a majority of people, may both wish and vote for something quite different.

If I am right, this is, of itself, not necessarily either good or bad. It is certainly not anybody's first choice, but whether it is a crisis or merely a less-than-ideal fact of life depends, like so many other less-than-ideal facts of life, on how well we cope with it. Unfortunately, the political system has had a hard time adjusting, no doubt because the reality of government's condition cuts sharply across the rhetoric of politicians and the expectations of political activists. The public and even some politicians and activists are growing gradually, if grudgingly, more accepting of the natural limits on government's ability to change society. Not even the most liberal of Democrats talk any more of nationalizing great industries, or providing guaranteed incomes for everybody. Beyond that adjustment, however, lies another, which is subtler and may be harder. The public needs to begin accepting the natural limits on society's ability to change government.

In the spring of 1994, this book--or, maybe more aptly, this book's predecessor--was first published under the title "Demosclerosis." Shortly thereafter came Clinton's dramatic attempt to overhaul the country's health care system, and after that came Gingrich's even more dramatic attempt to overhaul everything. Those events showed that what I call "demosclerosis" held, if anything, an even more powerful grip on Washington than I originally thought. They raised a further question, too. If the ideas of demosclerosis are right, what happens next? The first version of this book focused mainly on the mechanisms of sclerosis. In this revised version, I've taken the opportunity to think about the lessons of the failed reforms, about the possible routes to better success, and about ways in which the country can develop a more productive and less pathological relationship with its government. The new title reflects this edition's larger compass.

* * *

I am not saying that nothing can be done. Far from it. I am saying that the voters will continue to be frustrated and ineffective until they understand what has gone wrong, and learn how to treat the syndrome rather than just shaking their fists at it. In the last two chapters of the book, I try to sketch the sorts of reforms that can be the foundation for a new and, I think, much more productive entente between Washington and the public. Highest of all the reforms on that list are the ones we will need to make inside our own heads. America's government has grown up, and, in a way, I'm trying to suggest how the citizenry can grow up with it.

Revised March 7, 2005.