Monday, August 2, 2010

Yglesias: Exactly Right. Also, Completely Wrong

Over the weekend, Matt Yglesias boiled down what makes the American system different from most democracies with which it is normally compared, and he did it far more concisely than I could ever hope to do:
The main upshot of many features of the US political system that I don’t like is to enhance the influence of interest groups and decrease the influence of ideologues and technocrats. This is basically by design and reflects 18th century state of the art thinking about the dangers of liberal governance being trampled by demagogues. Insofar as the balance we’re currently striking is inappropriate to the conditions of the 21st century United States that’s bad for the right and the left. 
The part I put in bold, I think, is exactly correct.   You really can't do better at explaining what makes the USA different.  (For a bit more Yglesias on the subject, by the way, see here).

I think I'd disagree with him to some extent about the origins of some of the differences.  For example, I've always understood (and I'm by no means an expert) that the relative weakness of the American bureaucracy is an artifact of the historical accident that the US began as a democracy without a bureaucracy, while in Germany and Britain, for example, bureaucracy preceded democracy.  But while there are interesting and important arguments to have about the history of these things, what's far more important is whether in fact the American system -- interest groups more important, ideologues and technocrats less important -- is a good thing or not.  Regular readers will know that I entirely disagree with Yglesias about this.

I want to keep this relatively short, but there are at least three grounds for objecting to his "ideologues and technocrats" version of democracy.  The first is on political theory grounds: there's very little opportunity for meaningful participation in an extreme technocrats and ideologues system.  Basically, voting is still meaningful, but that's about it.  To really get involved, one needs to either develop ideological skills, which are generally narrowly held, or one needs to make a career in government.  The American system, on the other hand, with traditionally non-ideological parties and fragmented and decentralized interest groups, parties, and governments, is inherently far more permeable, and thus encourages meaningful participation.  Second is Madison's famous concern about majority rule.  For Madison, majority rule democracies were inherently unstable, because high-stakes elections encourage the losers to defect (through, for example, civil war or coup).

And third, one can argue that technocratic systems aren't even more competent than the American system.  Why would that be?  For reasons similar, perhaps, to the reasons that command economies don't work very well.   Bureaucrats, no matter how well trained, may find themselves both cut off from the people and with incentives that have nothing to do with good public policy (such as, for example, larger budgets for their agencies).   Politicians with local, decentralized, particularized electoral incentives are (at least in theory) good at breaking through those incentives.  Systems in which most pols are just time-servers and the only pols who really matter are in government, and attuned mainly to national incentives, are apt to be much less able to seeing when bureaucrats have gone wrong.

So go the arguments, in very abbreviated form.  Just a couple other notes...I don't believe there's anything about this debate that does, or should, break down along right/left lines.  Also, while I strongly believe my side of this is the correct one (thus the title of this post!), what I think is also important is to understand the choices, and see that it is a choice, and again I think Yglesias does a terrific job of that.  And while I do think that the general outline of the American system is sound, that doesn't mean that every single veto point and every single check and balance is set exactly correctly (so in practice I think Senate reform is needed).


  1. Isn't "The American system, on the other hand, with traditionally non-ideological parties and fragmented and decentralized interest groups, parties, and governments" becoming substantially less so, at least with respect to parties and interest groups?

    You recently posted on how House races have become more nationalized since the 70s, and in an institutional way. It seems to me that interest groups have also become more ideologically aligned, and for the same reason - they share the same ecosystem of consultants, strategists, and pollsters, and get drawn into one ideological/partisan sphere or the other.

  2. Less so, yes. Substantially? Depends on what you mean, I guess.

    Also, I think it's really easy to overestimate how aligned interest groups actually are. A lot of the most visible ones are quite partisan, but there are tons of low-visibility groups that avoid that. You could see that in the health care debate...most of the groups involved just wanted to be taken care of, as opposed to following any party line.

  3. I'd say part of why the bureaucracy is "weak" in a carrying out their charter sense is the rather ambivalent structural situation of bureaucracies in the Union. They can hire their own people, but those who run them have to be appointed by the pres and approved by Congress, ensuring that people rarely if ever follow an institutional career path to the higher positions and that political operatives, at best, muddle their activities with partisan concerns and, at worst, high-jack the organization and use it entirely for partisan ends as the DOJ was at the behest of Rove. While the President sets their goals, Congress can decided whether or not to fund them, and later Presidents can, as the recent Bush presidency showed, quite easily fire and drive off the upper level management types if they chose to. Similarly, due to their reliance on Congress for funding, bureaus have an incentive to undermine their own mandate if carrying it out to the full might cross a Congressperson's pet project or political allies. While it may be illegal to bribe bureaucracy officials, those laws seem rarely to be enforced nor suspicious activity investigated by law enforcement, facts which tends to undermine a bureau's ability to carry out its mandate, particularly in the face of their proscribed inferior pay levels.

    Lacking strong protections from partisan manipulation or outside subversion, and possessed less of independence than of multiple masters, is it any wonder that bureaucracies, with the notable exception of the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, exhibit an inability to defend themselves in D.C. and anemic enforcement, particularly coming out of the Bush years?


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