Can Common Sense Fix Our Broken Democracy?

This article originally appeared on AmericaMagazine.org on 06/14/2019.

Washington has given up on governing. It doesn’t fix programs that everyone knows have long been broken. It doesn’t respond to public anger at Big Brother breathing down our necks in schools, hospitals and the workplace. What it touts as major reforms are usually just tweaks in programs that are overdue for complete overhauls.

Most Americans want Washington to change how it works. But attacking Washington is like punching into fog. There’s no clear path to reform. It’s hard to find any coherent vision of how government could work differently.

President Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” That sounds good, but how does government make decisions the next day, after there’s dry land in Washington? I can’t find his idea on how public schools will be run better, or health-care costs reined in, or obsolete subsidies eliminated.

Let’s look to our leaders in Congress. They’re not trying to fix Washington. They don’t even think about it. They’re too busy blaming each other for Washington’s failures.

While I find both parties problematic, I also think that partisan politics are a symptom of the deeper flaw in our governing system. Politicians point fingers because they’ve given up trying to fix things. There’s plenty of room for compromise between conservative and liberal ideologies, between liberating individual initiative and protecting individual rights. What’s missing is a theory of action.

There is one assumption that the parties happen to agree upon, part of an unstated frame of reference for modern public culture. The shared assumption is this: Whatever government does, it should do with tight controls. The goal is to avoid mistakes and abuses. That’s why rules are so prescriptive, so that neither officials nor citizens have any leeway for bad judgment. For unavoidable decisions—say, giving a permit—the person with responsibility must be able to demonstrate, by objective proof, that the choice was correct. The motivation is mutual distrust: conservatives want to restrict officials, and liberals want to shackle businessmen.

This reverence for tight legal controls over every public choice is embedded in political philosophies of both sides. “Individual rights” against what? Against decisions by people with authority. Protect individual freedom against what? Against government authority.

The worse Washington works, the tighter the grip on public choices. Washington may not work well but, by God, anything it does must pass through the eye of a legal needle.

This operating philosophy of modern government is a comparatively recent innovation, as I will discuss. But it’s been around long enough that, with a little effort, we can put it in a jar and evaluate it as a scientist would describe any other experiment.

Its core premise is this: Every public decision must be correct. The person making the decision must be able to demonstrate its correctness—either by compliance with a rule or metric, or by objective evidence. This philosophy was never given a name, probably because it seemed so obviously virtuous.

I’ll call it the “philosophy of correctness.” Its drive for purity in public choices is related to the cultural norm called “political correctness,” but is much broader. The broader philosophy of correctness dictates decisions, not just how to talk about certain issues. Correctness requires that public choices must be demonstrably proper by reference to some objective measure. At long last, government would work as it should. After millennia of humans trying to govern themselves, our generation thought it had found the magic key to good government.

American government today is a giant, intricate edifice dedicated to the principle of correctness. All day long, Americans in schools, hospitals and the workplace are trained to ask themselves, “Can I prove that what I’m about to do is legally correct?”

This philosophy of correctness has failed. Indeed, it should go down in history as the most unrealistic governing philosophy since Soviet central planning. The proof is in the pudding. Government has gotten progressively more inept since the 1960s. Society meanwhile has splintered into factions at war over abstract values when, most of the time, their frustrations stem from the inability to make practical choices on the spot.

Practically every encounter with government provides another story of the real-life peg not fitting the precision-made bureaucratic hole. J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy,attributes his unlikely path—from son of a drug addict mother to Yale Law School—to his upbringing by his grandparents. Today, he observes, his grandparents would likely be barred from taking him in unless they had been certified by the state. His fiercely proud and profane grandparents were unlikely to have tolerated, much less passed, such a bureaucratic screening.

What’s missing is basic: People aren’t allowed to make decisions. Trace any frustration, or waste, or roadblock back through the chain of the command and what you will find, in nine out of ten cases, are officials and citizens who feel disempowered to do what’s right. Why did permitting approval to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge, a project with virtually no environmental impact, take five years and require an environmental review statement of 20,000 pages, including exhibits? No official had authority to draw the line when naysayers kept demanding more.

The breakdown of schools and other public institutions since the 1960s was caused not by underfunding, but by the collapse of authority by the people in charge. The evidence is overwhelming. The link between human disempowerment and school failure is vividly presented in Gerald Grant’s case study, The World We Created at Hamilton High. The statistical evidence connecting the rise of due process with the decline of order in schools is provided in Richard Arum’s study, Judging School Discipline. The need to cull bad teachers is highlighted by the evidence of intangible distinctions among effective and ineffective teachers in Philip Jackson’s study, The Moral Life of Schools. The personal leadership needed to build and maintain a healthy school culture is described in practically every study of good schools, including Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Good High School.

Correctness was doomed to fail. Life is too complex for a correct system. People are unique, and can only be organized so much. There’s no such thing as being a correct teacher or a correct factory. Circumstances always differ. Choices all involve trade-offs. Timing, resources, needs, passions and other variables are infinitely complex, but the mold is fixed.

The theory, taken from the rationalist tradition of Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, was to protect against bad government choices by extruding them through a mold of correctness. The actual effect is constant pain and failure, not merely for government but throughout society. Telling government exactly how to regulate also, unfortunately, tells citizens exactly how to comply. That’s why it grates on our nerves. Correctness forces Americans to contort themselves, like legal Houdinis, to make obvious daily choices.

Correctness now permeates the culture. Its utopian beacon casts a harsh light on anything that goes wrong, which must be the result of someone acting incorrectly. Any accident is an affront to proper planning. What Nassim Taleb calls the “Soviet-Harvard delusion” drives people towards controlling every possible activity. Children’s play has been transformed; “neurotically overprotective parents,” Taleb explains, preclude the trial and error needed for children to learn how to be resourceful as adults.

The ironies of correctness are many—what is called pure is usually toxic. The quest for neutral morality has resulted in an amoral culture, where rules prevent doing what is right. In one incident, firemen in Washington stood by and refused to help a victim right in front of their station because, as they explained to onlookers pleading for their help, the rules said that the proper procedure is to call 911. The man died. School administrators in New York refused to call 911 when a high school student had a stroke because a new school rule prohibited calling 911 (a rule intended to prevent overreliance on police for discipline). The girl survived.

Legal rigidity invites people to find openings for self-interest. Like water through a crack, selfishness saturates society through the fissures of this rigid system. Parties to a contract seize on any sliver of ambiguity to avoid performing their side of the deal. College students now have the idea that unsettling literature or ideas should be barred. Don’t you know that King Lear was a misogynist? The reach of correctness is limited only by the imagination of the self-perceived victim.

Life cannot be reduced to an abstract ideal of correctness. Conflict and adversity are unavoidable features of the human condition. The choices needed to get things done, and to be moral, and to promote joint activities, cannot be compartmentalized into correct or not. Every choice has costs and risks.

Governing is not an abstraction either. It requires decisions—to protect clean water, to oversee safety in numerous activities and to provide social services. These governing activities are intended to enhance everyone’s freedom by providing common goods and protecting against abuse. But it is not sufficient for government to have a pure heart when mandating and funding these goals; it must implement them sensibly and fairly. Whether government succeeds tolerably is determined not by a theory, but by the reality of how it works on the ground. That, in turn, hinges on the choices made in each situation—whether by a teacher, an inspector or the president.

Just as correctness frustrates our daily choices, so too it has immobilized Washington. Almost any new choice conflicts with some rule somewhere. Multiple legal pathways of rules and congressional committees are in constant conflict, with no hierarchy of authority to resolve them. Only by ignoring rules can officials get things done. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls modern government a “vetocracy”—anyone can veto anything. It seems to me more like a massive short circuit. For special interests, it couldn’t be easier to stop reform: just jump a few wires of overlapping jurisdiction and inconsistent regulations and, poof, reform goes up in smoke.

At this point, Washington is run by inertia. No one wants responsibility for actual results. Compliance is a lot easier than hard choices. Political leaders rail against the government they are elected to lead. Republicans have perfected the art of being the party of opposition even when they’re in control. Meanwhile, Washington is on automatic pilot, plowing forward as the accumulated laws and regulations require. The political noise is all for show.

Electing new leaders can’t fix this defect in modern American government, any more than I could fix a computer with a melted circuit board. America needs a governing framework that reconnects real people with actual results.

I propose a new approach that happens to be the old approach: Organize government by scope of responsibility. Radically simplify law into goals and guiding principles, and give designated officials responsibility to meet public goals sensibly and fairly. Give other officials responsibility to judge how they do. Instead of legal tentacles wrapped tight around each choice, law becomes a fence around a corral within which a wide range of choices is available. For officials, law defines their jurisdiction and gives room to make sensible choices. For citizens, law defines outer boundaries of a broad field of freedom and does not interfere with daily choices as long as they don’t transcend the boundaries safeguarded by officials.

Common choices are needed for society to move forward. Giving officials flexibility to take this responsibility has the paradoxical effect of empowering all around them, including citizens. “Power is one of those rare commodities,” William O’Brien noted, where “the more you give away, the more influence you retain.” The teacher is able to use the personal resources of personality, experience, willpower to make students excited about learning. The principal decides whether she is doing a good job. Another official or committee decides whether the principal is a good leader, and whether her judgments are fair. Instead of being stymied by mindless bureaucracy, parents now can deal with educators who are empowered to act as they think is sensible and fair. The parents’ ideas will matter only if someone can act on them.

Allocating responsibility to identifiable officials radically alters today’s governing dynamic. Instead of tiptoeing in the legal minefield and speaking in bureaucratic gobbledygook, people with responsibility find themselves in the spotlight, speaking the plain language of right and wrong. Other people affected by decisions now have a responsible official to talk with and try to persuade. Competing approaches are crystalized. Instead of punching at fog, citizens and other officials can punch at an identifiable person. When officials act unreasonably, they can be held accountable by their superiors in a democratic hierarchy—and ultimately by voters.

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