Monday, January 25, 2010

Nudging the leviathan

Since Ronald Reagan tried and failed to purge Washington of wasteful spending, nearly every major attempt at reforming the way our government does business has found itself where the Democratic health care bill is now — losing altitude, shedding supporters and tailspinning toward defeat.

If the legislation fails, liberals will have a long list of scapegoats. ...

But they might want to save some blame for the welfare state their predecessors built.

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.” ...

[Jonathan Rauch] suggests that sweeping reforms are difficult because we’re all special interests, in one sense or another. We all benefit from something (or many things) the government does, and so we all have an incentive to resist dramatic changes to the way Washington spends money. ...

None of this means that government cannot be reformed. Rauch’s book does not counsel despair. Rather, it counsels modesty, simplicity and incrementalism in legislative efforts. You can make big changes to small programs, and small changes to big ones. But comprehensive solutions tend to produce comprehensive resistance. And the more sweeping the stakes, the greater the chance of political disaster — whether your name is Clinton or Gingrich, Bush or Obama — when your bill goes down to defeat.
--Ross Douthat, NYT, on why revolutionizing government is so difficult

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