Equality vs. kludgocracy

In Commonweal, Charles Michael Andres Clark despairs that the fierce resistance to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), to the point of shutting down the federal government, is part of the American political tradition:

Every effort to broaden the scope of “all men” and promote real equality has caused a major backlash on the part of those who feel that their rights are being impinged upon whenever privilege is threatened. Each time an elite, whose advantages often entail a disadvantage for someone else, promises to disrupt everything else unless their interests are protected.

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This will strike some as simplistic; the past few years have shown that a large block of voters who are not part of the “elite” have strong objections to the government promoting equality in matters such as access to health care. (One could argue that these voters are part of a political elite by being white, but that opens an avenue of discussion beyond the scope of this post.)

A related explanation for the difficulty in enacting broad measures to ensure equality in the United States can be found in a lengthy but fascinating piece in the current issue of National Affairs.* “Kludgeocracy in America,” by political scientist Steven M. Teles, describes how our political system is biased toward piecemeal, often contradictory policies that, above all, preserve existing sources of power (a bureaucratic, if not necessarily an economic elite). The complex legislation known as Obamacare, passed as an alternative to a simple single-payer health insurance plan, is an example of kludgeocracy. So is federal education policy, which Teles points out, comprises an array of strings-attached grants instead of the simpler method of directing funds toward districts that need the most financial aid. I’d argue that our legislative process itself (with its cloture votes and discharge petitions and other arcane rules) and our system of voting (in which every state has different ways of expanding and/or limiting participation) are also full of kludges.

Here is Teles explaining the concept:

The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.

“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system (which even Obamacare’s champions must admit has only grown more complicated under the new law, even if in their view the system is now also more just), or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.

In Congress and in state legislatures, Teles explains, lawmakers “often require that legislation leave their favored programs safe from substantive changes. Consequently, new ideas have to be layered over old programs rather than replace them.”

Teles writes that both liberals and conservatives contribute to kludgocracy, but it’s easy to see how the phenomenon can weaken the kind of broad initiatives to achieve equality that Clark writes about in Commonweal. The Food Stamp program is a classic example; it wasn’t created as the most direct or efficient way to feed the hungry, but instead forced into the Department of Agriculture and paired with farm subsidies.

Though Teles doesn’t explore this in his article, the way we elect our representatives in America is also full of kludges. Real equality at the ballot box has been elusive, as every state has created its own complex system of voter eligibility and access to the polls. Having people vote during a 12- or 14-hour window on a workday has always been problematic, but instead of switching to weekend voting, some states (not all) have added early voting periods or mail-in ballots. Partly in reaction to this expansion of the voting process, some states are now imposing tighter voter ID laws (with even non-drivers having to negotiate motor vehicle departments in order to exercise the right to vote). Any kind of national uniformity (whether and when ex-convicts can vote, for example) is impossible because each state has its own bureaucracy that guards its power in deciding who gets to vote.

The kludgocracy theory can be seen as a less sinister explanation than economic elitism for our inability to achieve equality in many public policy spheres. Less sinister, but for some, no less disheartening.

*Thanks to the Monkey Cage’s Henry Farrell for highlighting the National Affairs article.

What’s that photo? A common phenomenon in Massachusetts (and possibly elsewhere) known as a double pole. It happens when a utility company needs to replace wires or fix rickety poles; instead of tearing an old pole down and starting from scratch, it just lashes a new pole to the old one. A classic kludge move. Photo from Universal Hub.

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