Why Government Sucks
“If ever this vast country is brought under a single government, it will be one of the most extensive corruption ”
Our political system is designed in a way that encourages sub-optimal outcomes for everyone but those in power.
The Current State
You’ve probably read it many times before—one of the few things that Americans can agree on is that they disapprove of their government.
The stats are out there, and it’s clear that ever since the mid-century, our faith in government has steadily weakened.
Our country is one of the most envied in the world, and the standard of living that Americans enjoy is firmly in the top 10% of all countries. So our government can’t be doing that bad of a job right?
After all, look to places like Venezuela and Syria to see what happens to a citizenry when a truly corrupt and/or incompetent government comes to power and dismantles society piece by piece.
Or is our country treading water in spite of our government? Is the collective American spirit what propels our country forward in the face of a polarized and neutered government.
The answer is of course somewhere in between. The principles enshrined in our Constitution and woven into our social fabric, coupled with the work of the few good men and women in our governments (federal, state and local) certainly contribute to the goodwill of the nation.
Increasingly, the outcomes that result from the world of politics are doing more to harm the citizens of this nation than they are lifting up our people.
Granted, this is in the rare circumstance when the government actually takes some sort of action—which grows rarer and rarer with our paralyzed and partisan system.
Inaction is the default setting of an aging and bloated government.
To be fair, the founders intentionally made it difficult to railroad new laws and have our legislative process overwhelmed by a tide of passion and fury.
That being said, the snail-like pace with which our government operates is far from what the founders had in mind—especially because the few laws that are passed are either: deliberately ineffective but useful for campaigning, and/or handouts to powerful interest groups.
So what is it about our government that breeds failure? Why does our government’s work not consistently result in positive society-wide outcomes?
After all, if we are directly electing officials, and punishing or rewarding their performance, shouldn’t we be forming a government that reflects our best interests?
What if I told you that the people in power want our government to be the way currently is, and this historical path has been repeated over and over again in history?
The repeated failure of government is not a bug, it is the intended outcome of the system.
Let’s break our government down into the simplest description of its system.
We have the two sets of players or actors: citizens, and politicians.
Politicians are selected by citizens to represent them.
So far, everything seems to be working in tandem.
How do citizens select politicians? By directly voting for them, and doing so every term (a pre-determined length of time).
How do politicians get work done once they get elected? They go to a place filled with other politicians and work together to pass laws that they can agree upon.
What’s the deal here? The system seems foolproof at the smallest scale.
People + voting= representative politician.
Politicians + voting= representative law
People + voting= representative laws
The problem lies in three forms: the incentives structure, the accountability and the size.
The build on one another, so let’s take them in order.
Unfortunately, most humans do not act out of pure goodwill, at least all the time. This means we design our societal systems with incentive structures to encourage productive and efficient outcomes.
In the case of politics, the incentives are stacked against political participation when you look from the perspective of a citizen. In a modern world, the government’s day to day decisions hardly affect the average person.
Right there, your motivation to go vote is already low, especially since it is an activity that takes pre-planning, a chunk of time, and does not offer compensation.
There is also the fact that your vote could be worthless. Worthless in the sense that your candidate wins by more than a one-vote margin, or worthless because they lose by more than a one-vote margin. Given that most races end with margins at the minimum in thousands or tens of thousands, you can see why most people would value their individual vote at close to nothing.
You care a lot more about voting for lunch at the office than voting for even for local city council, because the scale makes it so that the former empowers you more. Plus who can name something recent their city council has done?
On the other side, politicians have all the wrong incentives—primarily because they lack accountability.
Yes, you’re supposed to be able to vote them out, but that relies on citizens have wide access to all the information about their performance in office or before assuming office.
How does this happen? Usually in the form of paid media campaigns.
Who funds these campaigns? Well it would make sense if citizens did.
You find a politician you like, you want other people to learn about them, so you’d be willing to contribute money to their campaign.
Yeah right. If most people can’t be bothered to vote, which is free, what makes you think they’ll donate hard earned money to a politician.
This means that politicians are no longer catering directly to the interests of the people. They’re catering to whoever can give them the most money, so that they can turnaround and run effective media campaigns that will convince enough people to get them in to office.
Plus, the actual job of being a politician is not highly coveted. The pay is solid, but the presumption is that if you could have the ambition and charisma to make it as a politician, you could make much more money pursuing a career outside of public service.
Therefore the people most inclined to run for public office are the exact kind of people who should not be politicians: people interested in furthering their own self-image and amassing power, not people who do it out of the good of their heart.
Once a politician is in office, the single goal that he or she has in mind is to continue to be re-elected. This is the only goal that a politician has to worry about.
In the same way that your corporate 9-5 job mainly consists of trying to not get fired, doing the bare minimum, and schoomizing it up during your performance reviews, politicians scrape by and do the bare minimum, other than get a few positive headlines when elections roll around.
Remember, I cannot stress this enough. Elections are primary to everything in a politician’s career. Without being in power, they can do nothing. Therefore maintaining power is their ultimate goal. Being good is secondary (or lower for some).
After all, the citizens that elect politicians hardly pay attention to the political news outside of election season, and especially if it doesn’t apply to them. Even if there was some sort of outrage, the strongest accountability enforcement measure that a citizen has is an online petition. Ha.
Even then, what about the basic structure of elections? Sure, it’s hard to police politicians when they’re in office, but don’t we do a good enough job of choosing them and sending them to a place designed for their kind of work?
No. Look at the simple math.
Given that you can’t pass laws without other politicians supporting your cause, you often have to support their laws in return for support for your own.
In many cases, your cause may run in direct opposition to the values held by another politician and/or group of citizens. What now? Well if you’re in power, you can just steamroll the law over, and if you’re not, you can negotiate (but you’re probably out of luck).
It normally takes a simple majority of politicians agreeing on something to make it a law, and it takes a simple majority of citizens to elect a politician.
You end up with legislation that resembles a Frankenstein monolith of compromises and unrelated laws, hammered through by a ruling coalition that pays little mind to the minority.
This means a law that applies to 100% of the citizens, was decided on by less than 0.01% of the population. This 0.01% population was selected by perhaps 30% of the citizens, of which 15% were ignored. All I’m getting is a bunch of tiny slices of the pie deciding the most important questions in the country.
You can see how scale really helps (or hurts) here, and why some professors advocate for a return to a more localized government. National races get more attention for obvious reasons, but people tend to care much more about their neighbors than their fellow countrymen thousands of miles away.
You can see that the incentives are maligned between the actors involved. They are non-existent for citizens, and corrupting for politicians. It’s interest groups/corporations that have the largest incentive to participate and alter election outcomes to then control politicians in office.
And you see how a lack of legitimate accountability further plagues the system. I’m paraphrasing here, but as Thomas Jefferson said, we would not need government if men were angels. Your elected official could be fucking you over right now and there’s very little you can do about it.
This doesn’t even go into the problem with political parties, which have made coalition building easier in many instances, but increased polarization by far. There’s a reason our founding fathers warned against them—but even they could not resist their temptation, and ended up creating and joining them.
To recap: uninterested voters, insulated politicians, opportunistic corporations, and a Capitol building miles and miles away.
The best way to make it clear that our government is inescapably ineffective (and not just filled with buffoons or people making mistakes) is to compare the government to its foil, or most obvious counterpart—business.
As a quick note, I’m not advocating for governments to be run entirely like businesses, as there are several limitations or elements that cannot be translated. Likewise, business could and has learned a few things from good government.
I’ll keep the comparison short and direct.
Incentive? In business it’s to make money, the greatest motivator human beings know.
In a warped way, the same incentive reigns in politics—the exact arena where it should not.
We can embrace this, and pay politicians way more—along with instituting strict campaign finance laws. But in this case we’ve simply exacerbated the problem, as now politics will be pursued by the greediest people.
The real challenge is to bring honor back to the profession, and to also force politicians to be amongst their constituents more often. This is the only way to funnel well-intentioned people into civil service, and to make sure their success is measured in constituent happiness and not election percentages or campaign warchests.
There exist people in the world that are more motivated by duty to one’s community/country than any dollar amount, and these noble and receptive individuals should be the ones engaging in political discourse.
Accountability? In the free market you either provide a worthy product or service to customers or you die.
People make the conscious decision to pay for products, and in return expect some sort of utility. (Utility in the economic sense meaning happiness or value, not just referring to tools.)
If your product does not deliver on its promise, people will not purchase it again or any more. Your company must adapt to this, or it will go out of business.
Even the most successful companies must adhere to this mantra, perhaps moreso. Look at a list of the past bankruptcies/acquisitions in the last 5 years and you’ll come across a whole host of names that were formerly hallmark brands and industry giants.
Politician doesn’t vote the way you want him to? Guess you have to wait until the election, where hopefully 50 + 1% of people agree with you. Oh, and the other candidate competing against him or her might be worse (if there is competition).
Yes, obviously there are companies that provide shitty products/services and have near monopolies so we’re forced to pony up regardless. In due time, most industry incumbents get burned hard by newcomers, or innovate as a result of that threat however. Unlike some crooked and/or dumb politicians that get re-lected indefinitely.
What would accountability in politics look like then, if we adopted something from the business playbook?
THOUGHT EXERCISE HERE
Well, you sort of have the answer already. There are mechanisms in place to force recalls, which have successfully happened. This is akin to shareholder takeovers.
More dramatically, you have more powerful instruments: assassinations and coups. Without a doubt, the former should be used sparingly if at all.
The latter can be just as, if not more dangerous in the wrong hands. These two are the political equivalent of bankruptcy/restructuring, and board takeovers.
THOUGHT EXERCISE END
Realistically, you could have elections more often and cap campaign spending so as to avoid wasteful dollars. In the same way that corporations are forced to report quarterly reports, politicians might be more inclined to get work done, and good work, if they know their track record will be under scrutiny immediately.
Now for the last comparison, scale? Here business actually has the same problems as government.
With the explosion of the internet and other key applications, the cost of producing software has plummeted. Nowadays, two young programmers can build something that dethrones a decades old tech company after a few hours of virality.
Employees at large companies have to navigate layer and layer of bureaucracy, and responsibility is inefficiently distributed to the point of hampering progress. There is also a loss in terms of proximity to customer research, the lifeblood of surviving as a company.
In this way, smaller scale startups are more efficient for business as local politics is for government.
To this I have no real response, other than to stay at small scale as long as possible. This works better for government than for business, as business is always chasing larger profits—government can afford to stay scaled down since it is chasing better outcomes.
My essays are usually written as exploration—with no-predetermined answer, but just a question that I’d like to examine.
In this case, the exploration has left me unsatisfied with the answer. The more I think about it, the less the problem lies in the system of government itself.
After all, what is a system other than an organizational structure invented by and adhered to by humans.
I don’t think government inherently sucks. Maybe our fellow citizens do.
In that case the question becomes much broader than how do we make government better? How do we make ourselves better? As individuals and as a society.
Ironically, the answer for that may lie in the exact opposite direction of business. A move towards a more simple life, devoid of rampant consumerism, and towards a reformation of family/community values.
Or we could keep treading water. As an aggregated average, it’s worked thus far.