Promising the Moon, Ignoring Broken Government

This article originally appeared on on 09/9/2019.

The presidential debates so far have largely ignored the key issue on which the last several elections have turned: a commitment to overhaul Washington. In 2008, Barack Obama was a newcomer who promised “Change we can believe in.” But that promise didn’t work out, and 8 million Obama supporters turned around and voted for a bombastic outsider who promised to “Drain the swamp.”

But Washington continues to plow ahead as before. So far, President Trump’s promise also has amounted to little more than bluster.

Recent surveys suggest that voters continue to want a leader who will shake up Washington. A recent survey by professor Paul Light found that the percentage of Americans seeking “very major reform” of Washington has increased to almost two-thirds, up from 37% over the past 20 years. A recent University of Chicago survey found that 54% think government needs “major changes.”

Democratic candidates avoid criticizing how government works, and hope to attract voters by promising the moon: more healthcare, free tuition, new regulations, and more rights for everybody. Newcomer Andrew Yang, though best known for promising a monthly payout to every American, stands alone in presenting concrete ideas for overhauling broken government — proposing to sunset old laws, reform civil service, rein in runaway lawsuits, and disrupt the Beltway culture by moving agencies out of Washington.

Democratic candidates broadly assume that voter alienation is cured by less economic insecurity and more freebies. But the attraction of Trump to many voters was not their economic interest — indeed, many voted for him despite positions that might harm them — but the promise of getting Washington off their backs. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in his recent book Identity, explains how the rise of big bureaucracy has corroded individuals’ identity and sense of self-respect.

Americans hate overbearing government. Daily choices in America are continually skewed and stymied by bureaucratic indignities. Nurses spend half their day filling out forms. Teachers are forbidden to put an arm around a crying child. A small business must go to multiple agencies for a simple permit. Mothers get in trouble for letting children go for a walk by themselves. Businesses no longer give job references. Trying to keep the paperwork in order, and constantly worrying about bureaucratic compliance, has led to a plague of burnout. Instead of striving forth in the land of freedom, Americans tiptoe through a legal minefield.

Trump successfully pokes this wound, even though he offers no coherent governing ideas to heal it. But Democrats offer no vision to deal with voter anger at Washington. Democrats see any criticism of government as illiberal. But dense legacy bureaucracies not only suffocate citizens but also cripple good government.

Bureaucracy is ruinously expensive. Twenty-one states now have more noninstructional personnel than teachers in their school systems. Thirty percent of the healthcare dollar is consumed by administration: That’s about $1 million per doctor. Decade-long infrastructure permitting doubles costs, harms the environment, and helps no one except the bureaucratic consulting industry.

Cutting this waste requires not reforms here and there but rebooting Washington with new simplified structures that provide a platform for human responsibility. Government should set goals and principles and give communities and citizens the freedom to achieve them in their own ways. Instead of demanding mindless compliance, hold people accountable for how they do. Liberating officials and citizens to use their common sense also cures the alienation caused by Big Brother breathing down our necks. The result is not deregulation, but a dramatic spring cleaning to purge sclerotic bureaucracy and replace it with clear lines of responsibility. Only then can democracy be responsive to American citizens.

Democrats pose as “change agents” by attacking big business and proposing to eliminate money in politics. But where is their vision for how government will work better once virtuous people are in charge? By ignoring voter anger at overbearing government, Democrats unwittingly present themselves as the party for the Washington status quo. That’s not the major reform Americans want.

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