Wednesday, December 11, 2013

flawed analysis

Francis Fukuyama has a long essay pointing to what he calls the decay of American political institutions. I think his analysis is deeply flawed.  Here's the summary of his argument:
If we look more closely at American history as compared to that of other liberal democracies, we notice three key structural characteristics of American political culture that, however they developed and however effective they have been in the past, have become problematic in the present. 

The first is that, relative to other liberal democracies, the judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies. Americans’ traditional distrust of government thus leads to judicial solutions for administrative problems. Over time this has become a very expensive and inefficient way to manage administrative requirements.

The second is that the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has distorted democratic processes and eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively. What biologists label kin selection and reciprocal altruism (the favoring of family and friends with whom one has exchanged favors) are the two natural modes of human sociability. It is to these types of relationships that people revert when modern, impersonal government breaks down.

The third is that under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy. The decision system has become too porous—too democratic—for its own good, giving too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy. We need stronger mechanisms to force collective decisions but, because of the judicialization of government and the outsized role of interest groups, we are unlikely to acquire such mechanisms short of a systemic crisis. In that sense these three structural characteristics have become intertwined.
I agree that we are using the courts too much to resolve political issues, but I don't think the executive branch has such wisdom and virtue that the other two branches need to defer to it, nor that it needs further strengthening.

I disagree that interest groups and their lobbyists have undermined American democracy. There are potentially corrupting influences that have to be carefully monitored, but most groups have a clear First Amendment right to promote their favored policies.  There are so many groups, however, that they cancel each other out much of the time, leading to what Fukuyama calls "vetocracy."  I wish we had less gridlock, but I don't know how to get there when the Supreme Court outlaws effective limits on campaign contributions.

I also disagree that these problems would be resolved by shifting to a parliamentary system, which Fukuyama seems to endorse.
Many of these problems could be solved if the United States moved to a more unified parliamentary system of government, but so radical a change in the country’s institutional structure is barely conceivable.
We could make major progress against gridlock and hyperpartisanship if the voters started punishing the extremists and rewarded the lawmakers who want to follow the"regular order" and legislate more than they campaign.

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