Today's article is a feature from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit www.capitalcommentary.org
As Winston Churchill famously remarked, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
In his recent book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How it Can Do Better, Yale Law School’s Peter Schuck shines a light on some significant imperfections of American democracy. His detailed exploration of domestic policy concludes that most federal programs fail basic tests of cost-benefit analysis and too rarely reach their intended targets. Politically popular programs continue, even if they consistently fall far short of meeting their stated goals.
At first glance, many of Schuck’s critiques will resonate with those who wish to strip away all but the most bare-boned government programs and services. But his argument is far more complex—and far more compelling—than a simplistic anti-government tirade. Schuck’s detailed and nuanced discussion identifies some of the systemic problems that make domestic policymaking so complex and ineffective, even as he outlines positive strategies government can use to reorder incentive structures and serve the common good. Readers on the political right and left will both find plenty to make them squirm and challenge them to change.
Today’s grandstanding politics rewards pithy attacks and zingy one-liners but leaves little room for the diligent and complicated work needed to craft public policy and implement it well. Many partisans prefer the easy route of casting blame over the harder but essential path of working constructively to meet compelling needs. Voters have shown little patience for complex discussions of the unintended consequences of public policy, even as they respond powerfully to scare tactics. They are quick to reward those who say the right things, but they are much less likely to reward those who move beyond the sound bites to examine what is working well and what needs fixing.
Of course, good public policy should be guided by thoughtful principles and noble goals. But, as Schuck relates, our system operates on an odd incentive structure where frequent elections and the constant need to fundraise reward short-term promises over long-term planning.
The federal government needs more mechanisms in place to assess domestic policy performance, evaluate effectiveness, and encourage mid-course corrections. No one benefits when government continues to fund and even expand bloated programs that don’t meet their intended goals. While politicians play the game of claiming credit and casting blame, valuable (and all-too scarce) resources are misdirected, and people suffer as a consequence.
Schuck (himself a veteran of the Carter-era executive branch) also highlights some of the pitfalls of a complex and rigid bureaucracy. He shows the difficulty of translating legislative aims into practical policy prescriptions and demonstrates ways that layers of bureaucrats can lose a sense of the purpose and vision that originally animated a program.
How might Christians respond to Schuck’s analysis? The principles of stewardship and subsidiarity offer good starting points.
Proper stewardship requires evaluation, review, and willingness to change. If something isn’t working well, it is better to admit mistakes and seek reforms or even start from the drawing board and design something new, than to continue a seriously flawed program simply because it sounds appealing to voters. In the long term, everyone loses if government perpetuates inefficient programs that fall woefully short of meeting their intended targets.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity encourages policy formation at the local level, by the individuals and institutions closest to the people that they serve. When local laws fail to serve the common good, state and then federal oversight may be necessary. But it is best to leave most decisions to the people and associations that are most aware of the particular needs of their community.
This principle is a guiding factor for many aspects of public education. Locally elected school boards govern geographically based districts; parents and community members can monitor their school board’s work. State governments allocate most education funding and create standards to maintain equity across school districts. The federal Department of Education creates programs designed to fill in remaining gaps, such as targeting funding to low-income schools and setting standards for special education. This system is far from perfect, but its structure makes room for empowering those most closely connected to a community’s children while providing layers of protection and oversight for securing the common good.
Domestic policy is a messy business. Government can and should play its role in promoting the common good, meeting the basic needs of the vulnerable, and securing a system that enables human flourishing. But in our world of sin and woe, solutions will always be partial, and policy will always be imperfect.
Awareness of the limitations of our system is not reason to lose heart. Instead it can propel us to move beyond rhetoric, evaluate effectiveness, and search for better ways to meet the needs of a broken world.
Which brings us back to more sage advice from Winston Churchill: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
- Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College and author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Faith, and Reason.