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.”