Regarding our recent discussion about the purported “flexibility” of private business vs. “government bureaucrats” — there really is a problem with inflexibility in government, but the infamous “bureaucrats” are not the cause.
In the current Atlantic, James Fallows writes about “How America Can Rise Again.” It’s supposed to be cheerful, I think, but it isn’t. This comes near the end:
The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative â€œearmarks,â€ and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olsonâ€™s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern â€œdemosclerosis,â€ in a book of that name. He defined the problem as â€œgovernmentâ€™s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,â€ a process â€œlike hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.â€
We are now 200-plus years past Jeffersonâ€™s wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olsonâ€™s warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaqueâ€”and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry.
Well, yeah. That’s about as concise a description of our basic problem as I’ve seen anywhere. But do we dare revise the Constitution and change the makeup of the Senate? Until very recently I’ve been opposed to any mucking around with the Constitution, but maybe we should be discussing it — not just Senate reform, but Senate revision.
The whole article is worth reading. The problem with it is that Fallows keeps coming up with reasons why America really isn’t going to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t find his assurances very reassuring.