Can common sense fix our broken democracy?

Washington has given up on governing. It doesn’t fix programs that everyone knows have long been broken. It doesn’t respond to public anger at Big Brother breathing down our necks in schools, hospitals and the workplace. What it touts as major reforms are usually just tweaks in programs that are overdue for complete overhauls.

Most Americans want Washington to change how it works. But attacking Washington is like punching into fog. There’s no clear path to reform. It’s hard to find any coherent vision of how government could work differently.

Advertisement

President Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” That sounds good, but how does government make decisions the next day, after there’s dry land in Washington? I can’t find his idea on how public schools will be run better, or health-care costs reined in, or obsolete subsidies eliminated.

Let’s look to our leaders in Congress. They’re not trying to fix Washington. They don’t even think about it. They’re too busy blaming each other for Washington’s failures.

While I find both parties problematic, I also think that partisan politics are a symptom of the deeper flaw in our governing system. Politicians point fingers because they’ve given up trying to fix things. There’s plenty of room for compromise between conservative and liberal ideologies, between liberating individual initiative and protecting individual rights. What’s missing is a theory of action.

There is one assumption that the parties happen to agree upon, part of an unstated frame of reference for modern public culture. The shared assumption is this: Whatever government does, it should do with tight controls. The goal is to avoid mistakes and abuses. That’s why rules are so prescriptive, so that neither officials nor citizens have any leeway for bad judgment. For unavoidable decisions—say, giving a permit—the person with responsibility must be able to demonstrate, by objective proof, that the choice was correct. The motivation is mutual distrust: conservatives want to restrict officials, and liberals want to shackle businessmen.

This reverence for tight legal controls over every public choice is embedded in political philosophies of both sides. “Individual rights” against what? Against decisions by people with authority. Protect individual freedom against what? Against government authority.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

The worse Washington works, the tighter the grip on public choices. Washington may not work well but, by God, anything it does must pass through the eye of a legal needle.

Correctness forces Americans to contort themselves, like legal Houdinis, to make obvious daily choices.

This operating philosophy of modern government is a comparatively recent innovation, as I will discuss. But it’s been around long enough that, with a little effort, we can put it in a jar and evaluate it as a scientist would describe any other experiment.

Its core premise is this: Every public decision must be correct. The person making the decision must be able to demonstrate its correctness—either by compliance with a rule or metric, or by objective evidence. This philosophy was never given a name, probably because it seemed so obviously virtuous.

I’ll call it the “philosophy of correctness.” Its drive for purity in public choices is related to the cultural norm called “political correctness,” but is much broader. The broader philosophy of correctness dictates decisions, not just how to talk about certain issues. Correctness requires that public choices must be demonstrably proper by reference to some objective measure. At long last, government would work as it should. After millennia of humans trying to govern themselves, our generation thought it had found the magic key to good government.

American government today is a giant, intricate edifice dedicated to the principle of correctness. All day long, Americans in schools, hospitals and the workplace are trained to ask themselves, “Can I prove that what I’m about to do is legally correct?”

This philosophy of correctness has failed. Indeed, it should go down in history as the most unrealistic governing philosophy since Soviet central planning. The proof is in the pudding. Government has gotten progressively more inept since the 1960s. Society meanwhile has splintered into factions at war over abstract values when, most of the time, their frustrations stem from the inability to make practical choices on the spot.

Legal rigidity invites people to find openings for self-interest.

Practically every encounter with government provides another story of the real-life peg not fitting the precision-made bureaucratic hole. J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, attributes his unlikely path—from son of a drug addict mother to Yale Law School—to his upbringing by his grandparents. Today, he observes, his grandparents would likely be barred from taking him in unless they had been certified by the state. His fiercely proud and profane grandparents were unlikely to have tolerated, much less passed, such a bureaucratic screening.

What’s missing is basic: People aren’t allowed to make decisions. Trace any frustration, or waste, or roadblock back through the chain of the command and what you will find, in nine out of ten cases, are officials and citizens who feel disempowered to do what’s right. Why did permitting approval to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge, a project with virtually no environmental impact, take five years and require an environmental review statement of 20,000 pages, including exhibits? No official had authority to draw the line when naysayers kept demanding more.

The breakdown of schools and other public institutions since the 1960s was caused not by underfunding, but by the collapse of authority by the people in charge. The evidence is overwhelming. The link between human disempowerment and school failure is vividly presented in Gerald Grant’s case study, The World We Created at Hamilton High. The statistical evidence connecting the rise of due process with the decline of order in schools is provided in Richard Arum’s study, Judging School Discipline. The need to cull bad teachers is highlighted by the evidence of intangible distinctions among effective and ineffective teachers in Philip Jackson’s study, The Moral Life of Schools. The personal leadership needed to build and maintain a healthy school culture is described in practically every study of good schools, including Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Good High School.

Life cannot be reduced to an abstract ideal of correctness.

Correctness was doomed to fail. Life is too complex for a correct system. People are unique, and can only be organized so much. There’s no such thing as being a correct teacher or a correct factory. Circumstances always differ. Choices all involve trade-offs. Timing, resources, needs, passions and other variables are infinitely complex, but the mold is fixed.

The theory, taken from the rationalist tradition of Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, was to protect against bad government choices by extruding them through a mold of correctness. The actual effect is constant pain and failure, not merely for government but throughout society. Telling government exactly how to regulate also, unfortunately, tells citizens exactly how to comply. That’s why it grates on our nerves. Correctness forces Americans to contort themselves, like legal Houdinis, to make obvious daily choices.

Correctness now permeates the culture. Its utopian beacon casts a harsh light on anything that goes wrong, which must be the result of someone acting incorrectly. Any accident is an affront to proper planning. What Nassim Taleb calls the “Soviet-Harvard delusion” drives people towards controlling every possible activity. Children’s play has been transformed; “neurotically overprotective parents,” Taleb explains, preclude the trial and error needed for children to learn how to be resourceful as adults.

The ironies of correctness are many—what is called pure is usually toxic. The quest for neutral morality has resulted in an amoral culture, where rules prevent doing what is right. In one incident, firemen in Washington stood by and refused to help a victim right in front of their station because, as they explained to onlookers pleading for their help, the rules said that the proper procedure is to call 911. The man died. School administrators in New York refused to call 911 when a high school student had a stroke because a new school rule prohibited calling 911 (a rule intended to prevent overreliance on police for discipline). The girl survived.

Legal rigidity invites people to find openings for self-interest. Like water through a crack, selfishness saturates society through the fissures of this rigid system. Parties to a contract seize on any sliver of ambiguity to avoid performing their side of the deal. College students now have the idea that unsettling literature or ideas should be barred. Don’t you know that King Lear was a misogynist? The reach of correctness is limited only by the imagination of the self-perceived victim.

College students now have the idea that unsettling literature or ideas should be barred.

Life cannot be reduced to an abstract ideal of correctness. Conflict and adversity are unavoidable features of the human condition. The choices needed to get things done, and to be moral, and to promote joint activities, cannot be compartmentalized into correct or not. Every choice has costs and risks.

Governing is not an abstraction either. It requires decisions—to protect clean water, to oversee safety in numerous activities and to provide social services. These governing activities are intended to enhance everyone’s freedom by providing common goods and protecting against abuse. But it is not sufficient for government to have a pure heart when mandating and funding these goals; it must implement them sensibly and fairly. Whether government succeeds tolerably is determined not by a theory, but by the reality of how it works on the ground. That, in turn, hinges on the choices made in each situation—whether by a teacher, an inspector or the president.

Just as correctness frustrates our daily choices, so too it has immobilized Washington. Almost any new choice conflicts with some rule somewhere. Multiple legal pathways of rules and congressional committees are in constant conflict, with no hierarchy of authority to resolve them. Only by ignoring rules can officials get things done. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls modern government a “vetocracy”—anyone can veto anything. It seems to me more like a massive short circuit. For special interests, it couldn’t be easier to stop reform: just jump a few wires of overlapping jurisdiction and inconsistent regulations and, poof, reform goes up in smoke.

At this point, Washington is run by inertia.

At this point, Washington is run by inertia. No one wants responsibility for actual results. Compliance is a lot easier than hard choices. Political leaders rail against the government they are elected to lead. Republicans have perfected the art of being the party of opposition even when they’re in control. Meanwhile, Washington is on automatic pilot, plowing forward as the accumulated laws and regulations require. The political noise is all for show.

Electing new leaders can’t fix this defect in modern American government, any more than I could fix a computer with a melted circuit board. America needs a governing framework that reconnects real people with actual results.

I propose a new approach that happens to be the old approach: Organize government by scope of responsibility. Radically simplify law into goals and guiding principles, and give designated officials responsibility to meet public goals sensibly and fairly. Give other officials responsibility to judge how they do. Instead of legal tentacles wrapped tight around each choice, law becomes a fence around a corral within which a wide range of choices is available. For officials, law defines their jurisdiction and gives room to make sensible choices. For citizens, law defines outer boundaries of a broad field of freedom and does not interfere with daily choices as long as they don’t transcend the boundaries safeguarded by officials.

Instead of legal tentacles wrapped tight around each choice, law becomes a fence around a corral within which a wide range of choices is available.

Common choices are needed for society to move forward. Giving officials flexibility to take this responsibility has the paradoxical effect of empowering all around them, including citizens. “Power is one of those rare commodities,” William O’Brien noted, where “the more you give away, the more influence you retain.” The teacher is able to use the personal resources of personality, experience, willpower to make students excited about learning. The principal decides whether she is doing a good job. Another official or committee decides whether the principal is a good leader, and whether her judgments are fair. Instead of being stymied by mindless bureaucracy, parents now can deal with educators who are empowered to act as they think is sensible and fair. The parents’ ideas will matter only if someone can act on them.

Allocating responsibility to identifiable officials radically alters today’s governing dynamic. Instead of tiptoeing in the legal minefield and speaking in bureaucratic gobbledygook, people with responsibility find themselves in the spotlight, speaking the plain language of right and wrong. Other people affected by decisions now have a responsible official to talk with and try to persuade. Competing approaches are crystalized. Instead of punching at fog, citizens and other officials can punch at an identifiable person. When officials act unreasonably, they can be held accountable by their superiors in a democratic hierarchy—and ultimately by voters.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
3 months ago

Libertarian? Actually lawmakers are governing - the House has crafted a number of bills ... a bill to lower prescription drug prices. to protect voting rights, an anti-corruption bill, a bill to help Dreamers, one on background checks for guns, an assault weapons ban, the Equality Act, disaster relief, etc. It is the Republican Senate that isn't doing its job because of it slavish fealty to Trump.

Christopher Lochner
3 months ago

And your first reaction is to point a finger? Really?(...long drawn out sigh!)

Joseph Makley
3 months ago

Her point was well taken. Laws, proposals, policies for government action vary a lot, and some contain far less of Howard's "correctness" disease than others. For instance, the 21st Century Learning Centers project offered a flexible funding stream to its recipients, with few strings, and clear expectations to get kids off the street during certain hours. Compare that with No Child Left Behind, a correctness storm, just two years later under a different administration. Both of those were at least nominally bipartisan. I would agree things have gone downhill, but not from a shared philosophy of correctness. It seems to me it is from a willing lack of fidelity, by a powerful minority, to the norms of our political system: vigorous, intellectually honest discourse, and compromise on legislation and policy for the common good.

J Cosgrove
3 months ago

What is common sense? After reading this I couldn’t understand just what the author wants to do. Let’s all just get along and do what’s right. It seemed like a series of cliches and vague ideas. Nothing concrete.

J Cosgrove
3 months ago

Author misses what divides people and thus nothing he says will lead to much of anything. At the end of civil war a confederate soldier from the hills of Tennessee and a union soldier from the hills of Pennsylvania were identical in ideology and aspirations except for slavery. Now two people living next to each other may be irreconcilable. Common sense is not the answer when ideology separates two groups.

Gabriel Marcella
3 months ago

Thanks for the fresh thinking about our democracy. The hard part will be implementation. One would hope that colleges and universities take up the challenge by developing courses that implement the author's ideas. Currently, academic institutions and scholars teach about how the policy process works, they are reticent to teach about how it should and how to make democracy more effective in delivering on its promise. Indeed, codified political correctness in the form of the constant growth of regulations impedes creativity and risk taking. Improving the system is an uphill battle. For a review of the author's book see:https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/to-beat-dc-gridlock-hire-outsiders-to-rewrite-all-the-rules/2019/02/08/d8ef071a-e203-11e8-b759-3d88a5ce9e19_story.html?utm_term=.4cd017693ba1

Randal Agostini
3 months ago

Refreshing, a good debate. Sounds like we could introduce the Christian concept of subsidiarity.

Charles Erlinger
3 months ago

Reading this thoughtful essay, I was watchful for some indication of that old standby, nostalgia. Finally, it came:

“I propose a new approach that happens to be the old approach....”

When thinking about the turbulence and seemingly intractable disagreements that paralyze practical action in our society, it is tempting to surrender to nostalgic thoughts of a pleasant, harmonious and productive past. One period frequently referred to in this connection is post-WWII “good old days.”

But in 1949, an associate professor of History at St. Louis University published a book entitled “Makers of the Modern Mind”. Professor Thomas P. Neil, PhD, wrote eleven summaries of the principal thoughts of Enlightenment influencers, starting with Martin Luther. In reading the few quotes that I report below from Neil’s chapter on Luther, please note, in addition to his description of Luther’s influence, his evaluation of the USA condition in 1949.

“He achieved historical importance because he expressed certain powerful but suppressed feelings of the German people, because he appealed to the cupidity of the nobles and the ambition of the princes, because the time was ripe for such a revolution as his, and he instinctively knew how to utilize the forces of change at his disposal….”

“…Luther justified and promoted the absolute power of the prince, he furthered religious divisions along national lines and thus helped usher into European history the truly bloody religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries….”

A few paragraphs later Neill remarked:

*Luther could have made his mark only when society was in flux—as it is today [1949]—when there was discontent deep in men’s hearts, when the existing powers abused their trust.”

Neill wrote these pessimistic words before the Korean War had started and before the McCarthy hearings had gotten national attention. What was coming in a few short months would bring catastrophe to thousands of individuals and their loved ones,

So much for the “good old days.”

The author proposes an organizational solution to the problems he cites. But this, in itself, is a bureaucratic approach to what he characterizes as largely a bureaucratic problem. When we enshrine into law and enforce with the tools of criminal or civil justice both the procedures and the outcomes of administrative decision making, we are reacting to alarming evidence of disregard for assumably shared norms.

I suggest that what we are looking for is evidence of virtue as a basis for improvement, but have targeted the elimination of prescriptive proliferation to get the job done.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 months ago

“Vetocracy—anyone can veto anything.” That’s oligarchy 101. The oligarchy can veto any threat to the oligarchy, namely anything promoting the common good.

D-day arguably marks the signature achievement of America’s greatest generation. America emerged as leader of the free world. In 1944, the U.S. taxed oligarch income at 94%.

Oligarchy defines freedom as freedom from taxes. The oligarchy will lead America to more tax cuts. Where could a 94% tax on oligarch income lead? A WWII bond poster poster titled “To Have and to Hold—“ featured the picture of a two or three year old girl.

Oz Jewel
3 months ago

It has been my understanding that there used to be a lot of colonies and they became autonomous states at decolonisation and then developed a federation, united the states under a constitution in such a way that the central government had the minimum of power and authority and governance possible while maintaining the autonomy of the states. A Constitutional Republic.
There are optional voting rights attached to each separate citizen without any group or class having any power to overcome one person one vote.

A social experiment, up to now quite successful in many material ways, morally not so much.
When put to a democratic vote, human sinfulness is bound to have majority preference for some evil things.

It still seems that God prefers a Constitutional Monarchy, so do I.

Mike Macrie
3 months ago

This whole article is a Utopian Dream. Let’s say a Common Good is Good Affordable Health Care for all Americans but who gets to define what that is ? The Democrats had defined it as Obama Care, the Republicans say Obama Health Care is not any good and have stripped away at it. It’s the Politicians who have define Health Care and not the people. Let the people vote on their ballots or on their Census by checking off what they want in a good Health Care Plan. Forget polls, let the people themselves vote if they want Medicare for all and hold the Political Party Responsible to deliver.

John Chuchman
3 months ago

Hasn’t fixed the Church. Maybe because common sense isn’t so common.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Pope Francis embraces Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, superior general of the Society of Jesus, during a meeting with editors and staff of the Jesuit-run magazine, La Civilta Cattolica, at the Vatican Feb. 9, 2017. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)
His critics know Pope Francis "will not change,” said Father Sosa, adding, “In reality, these [attacks] are a way to influence the election of the next pope.”
Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 16, 2019
We spend billions each year on avoiding pain through pharmaceuticals or self-medicating through alcohol and drugs. But we must not forget that pain and suffering are not the enemy.
John WesterSeptember 16, 2019
Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia pray during Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, Tenn., on July 24, 2016. Members of religious orders who come from abroad and take a vow of poverty may find it more difficult to remain in the United States. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)
New immigration rules may have serious ramifications for those coming to the U.S. to work as teachers, chaplains or health care workers, writes Sister Sally Duffy of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
Sally Duffy, S.C.September 16, 2019
An altar is adorned with white balloons at a "Mass for the Peace" Aug. 10, 2019, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one week after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in nearby El Paso, Texas. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)
“We need to help our society to see our common humanity—that we are all children of God, meant to live together as brothers and sisters.”
Jim McDermottSeptember 16, 2019