Democracy by Dead People
Every year, Congress and state and local legislatures pass thousands of new laws, but they almost never go back to reconsider laws passed many years before. Over time, laws have piled up like sediment in a harbor, bogging the country down. As we seek to address 21st century challenges, our hands are tied by laws made by political leaders who are long dead.
One reason for this problem is that we don’t distinguish between different types of laws. Some principles of law are timeless—forbidding crimes, enforcing contractual promises, protecting free speech. But most regulatory and social programs are more like management tools for a fair society. Like any management tool, they must be adjusted to keep up with current social needs. Even when the program embodies a timeless principle—like financial support for the elderly or medical care for the poor—we need to reevaluate these programs periodically to ensure what we’re doing still makes sense. Today, that doesn’t happen.
Legislative procedure is another culprit. The Founders made it hard to pass laws, dividing power among different branches of government. But they did not foresee how much harder it would be to repeal a law. Special interest groups work constantly to protect the privileges and benefits they have been granted by statute and often resist any change to the status quo. Facing the prospect of running the special interest gauntlet, most legislators don’t even think about revisiting old laws.
We can’t run our country this way. To reinvigorate our government, we need the flexibility to make fresh choices—to balance social goals and make tradeoffs between competing priorities.