America is inherently resistant to the idea that the government should or can provide services, yet the overwhelming majority of its people demands high levels of government service. Steve Teles, of Johns Hopkins University, addresses this oxymoronic dilemma in a new essay, which neatly captures ongoing concerns of mine about the complexity and multi-headedness of not just the US federal government, but of the entire system of government within the USA. He coins the term ‘kludgeocracy’ to describe the ad hoc, overlapping, ill-conceived, and counterproductive approach that is uniquely characteristic of government within the United States of America.
Professor Teles warns about the inherent counterproductivity of accommodating “the desire to preserve the fiction of small government while also addressing public problems.” Americans demand all sorts of cake, and our politicians find all sorts of ways to let them eat it, while pretending to meet political demands that we continue to have the cake. The result is that we consistently create government offerings that are non-optimal. This is not just a federal phenomenon, but it is also relevant to state and local government, and the federal relationship to and ongoing manipulation of local governments.
His findings are especially relevant for a gridlocked government going over a fiscal cliff. It is tempting to believe that an inefficient Congress is one that is least likely to cause damage, and that procedural arcana, especially widespread formal and informal veto power, is a useful check or balance against overweening government power. Teles disputes this belief, providing compelling evidence that this sort of bureaucratic non-transparency and inefficiency has the exact opposite outcome, virtually guaranteeing gargantuan omnibus bills that are larded up with irrelevant pork. The system is tailor made for corruption on the part of external interests, not the least of which are the federal contractors who buy up TV advertising in sponsorship of the Sabbath Windbags.
One of Teles’ observations that especially resonated with me is his assertion that “The American tax code is almost certainly the most complicated in the Western world, both on the individual and the corporate side.” How can any normal human being be expected to deal with such a complex, confusing, and ultimately ambiguous ruleset? Why should normal people be expected to hire accountants to figure out how much money they owe the government? Surely this can’t be a full employment plan for the anal retentive. Americans experience the complexity of health care billing much as frogs experience gradually heating water—it just seems normal when it creeps up to critical levels so slowly. Having spent nearly a decade outside the country, one of the biggest surprises of our return was the total impenetrability of the medical billing system paid for by a purportedly private system that is forced on us by federal rules. Don’t even start down the path of trying to determine if your 401k or IRA provider is properly accounting for your retirement investments.
The nicest thing you can say about the American Kludgeocracy is that it is equally negative for the advocates of both large and small government–which probably goes a long ways towards explaining how we evolved into such an innately expensive yet inefficient approach. The vocal advocates of smaller government, immediately identifiable by their use of the word ‘statist’ as a pejorative, are offering little contribution to a national dialogue on what degree of government activity would be optimal for a contemporary nation. They can score cheap points within their own constituency by speaking out against things that they have no ability, let alone courage, to actually attempt to change. False dichotomies are inevitably intellectually flawed, nobody truly wants anarchy, so that leaves the unanswerable questions on the table, how much level of government service and control would be most beneficial, and how do we endeavor to ensure that is actually delivered? Those who are comfortable with government-provided solutions are also loathe to answer this fundamental policy question, preferring instead to stealthily insert their big government solution into some opaque form.
To the extent that we as citizens continue to encourage either of today’s main political parties, or demand that our legislators meet single-issue litmus tests, we are only furthering a system that is becoming increasingly expensive, inefficient and damaging not just to our economy, but to our society. As Professor Teles says, you cannot solve a problem until you can name it: the name of this pervasive problem is kludgeocracy. Such an approach is is politically and culturally corrupting, and its time that we started publicly shaming our legislators when they perpetuate these sorts of byzantine approaches.
Blogosphere coverage of Teles’ paper: