Kludgeocracy’s Lessons for Libertarians

My friend Steve Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, has an interesting new article in National Affairs entitled “Kludgeocracy in America.” His subject is the American political system’s unfortunate tendency in recent years to generate public policies marred by bewildering, dysfunctional complexity. Statutory page counts serve to illustrate the point: consider the Godzilla and Megalon of recent policy kludges, the Affordable Care Act (906 pages) and Dodd-Frank (849 pages).

Steve identifies many institutional factors that lead to Rube-Goldbergism – in particular, the multiplicity of veto points created by our basic constitutional design (presidential system, bicameral legislature, federalism) and augmented by more recent innovations (increasing use of multiple committee referrals and the Senate filibuster). “Every veto point functions more like a toll booth,” he writes, “with the toll-taker able to extract a price in exchange for his willingness to allow legislation to keep moving.”

But Steve also points the finger at American political culture. Specifically, the ambivalence of public opinion about the proper size and scope of government – captured by the oft-repeated and well-documented adage that Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals – drives policymaking in circuitous directions. “The easiest way to satisfy both halves of the American political mind,” according to Steve, “is to create programs that hide the hand of government, whether it is through tax preferences, regulation, or litigation, rather than operating through the more transparent means of direct taxing and spending.”

Steve argues that the rise of “kludgeocracy” is a blight that both progressives and libertarians have a shared interest in resisting. “We have arrived at a form of government,” he contends, “with no ideological justification whatsoever.”

I’ll leave my progressive friends to noodle this out for themselves, but I believe that the dynamic Steve writes about does have important implications for supporters of limited government. The sad truth – sad, that is, for people like me – is that small-government rhetoric is much more popular than actual small-government policies. American public opinion, I’m sorry to say, is pretty comfortable with big government; it’s just not very comfortable with how comfortable it is. Check out, for example, the General Social Survey data on support for government spending: the only unambiguously unpopular government programs are space exploration and foreign aid. Yet while large majorities support big spending in one specific area after another, only a tiny minority ever think government overall isn’t big enough, and today a healthy majority think it’s too big and powerful.

What to make of these conflicting attitudes toward government? Maybe a Freudian metaphor might be useful: libertarianism serves as America’s superego while progressivism supplies the ego and id. When Americans are asked if they want more government ice cream, they usually say yes. But asked if they like being morbidly obese, they generally say no. The big problem for supporters of small government: the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is mighty weak.

That problem has been exacerbated by the strategy pursued by political right’s small-government faction over the past generation. The priorities of that faction may fairly be described as, in descending order, (1) reducing or resisting increases in tax rates, (2) reducing or resisting increases in government spending, and (3) reducing or resisting increases in regulations and tax preferences. Alas, that ranking of priorities ends up enabling the electorate’s worst instincts. More transparent spending programs are shunned in favor of more obscure tax breaks and regulatory schemes, while spending now and taxing later are sold as “starve the beast” fiscal discipline. The public feeds its ravenous appetite for government while the true extent of its gluttony is conveniently hidden from view.

One can imagine a very different approach. Instead of pandering to the public, how about forcing it to face up to its bingeing? This approach would insist on public goals being pursued on budget to the maximum extent possible, and would further insist that every new spending program be accompanied by a tax increase to pay for it. In this scenario, issues are framed so as to put America’s libertarian conscience directly on the spot. OK America, you say you want government to do more about X? Well, are you willing to put your money where your mouth is by creating an explicit new spending program and raising the taxes needed to pay for it? Such a strategy, more or less the polar opposite of the reigning one, would at least render Leviathan more visible – and, in doing so, might just make it easier to contain.