Squeezing Every Last Dollar Out Of Democracy

Have you ever wondered why Congress is so spectacularly bad at solving problems? Do you marvel at the parade of so-called unintended consequences that flow from every piece of legislation, regulation, and executive order that pours out of Washington, regardless of which party is behind it? Do you really believe that everything would be fine if only politicians from the right tribe could be put in charge?

Now more than ever, each time Congress attacks a problem, the proposals become polarized, calling forth competing armies of advocates, lobbyists, and campaign donors. Many believe this is an aberration, yearning for some bygone era of comity and compromise. But what if it is by design? When yesterday’s trumpeted legislative accomplishments become today’s intolerable status quo—which in turn creates demand for a new round of urgent reforms that will surely be revisited tomorrow—do you begin to see a pattern that suggests this is not all an accident?

Have you ever asked yourself who stands to gain from a permanent state of dysfunction? Given the astronomical cost of reelection campaigns, milking the electorate by keeping citizens agitated and off balance may be the core business model of government. The impact of the resulting uncertainty on the economy is palpable.

Unresolved controversies are the surest way in which political parties and individual politicians can garner attention, stature, and financing.  Is there anything more inimical to the career of a professional politician than a segment of our culture or economy that is working fine when left well enough alone? Have you ever heard a pundit shout “crisis” and had a Congressperson reply, “I’m sorry, that’s outside the scope of our charter”?

And when was the last time Congress solved a problem once and for all, never returning it to the political limelight again? It’s much more common for supposedly well-intentioned but half-baked pieces of legislation to fester after triggering a thousand pages of regulations chock full of consequences that roil lives and businesses for years.

As affected parties beseech members of Congress for relief from the problems that Congress visited on them, is it any surprise that “access” can be had for the price of bundling up the right number of $2,000 campaign donations? This kind of office selling is so routine and bipartisan that it is done without fear or shame, protected by a wall of doublethink that conveniently defines a quid pro quo as some kind of inalienable right provided it is done sotto voce.

An increasing number of exhausted and disillusioned citizens have been reduced to begging for gridlock. Even some corporate chieftains are calling for a moratorium on campaign donations, experimenting with the idea that, like panhandlers, if you stop giving money to politicians perhaps they will go away. If only it were that easy.

Our Founders’ attempt to limit the scope of government while securing the largest possible sphere in which civil society could discover and implement independent solutions to its problems may seem quaint to some today. It need not be so.

Disempowering the periodic winners, from whichever side, in the increasingly expensive battle to control the levers of government is the only non-partisan approach that strikes directly at the root of the business model of politics—a business model based on endless bouts of expansive legislation. The issue is not who controls the levers of power, but how much power those levers pull.

Alas, returning to the Constitution as it was originally construed does not seem to be in the cards. In truth, neither party takes it seriously. While campaigning, the red tribe often gives lip service to the idea of limited government, but invariably forgets once in office. The impetus to direct largess toward constituents with the power to keep them in office is always too powerful to resist.

Unless and until large factions of the electorate emerge that are willing to pay politicians to legislate less instead of more, the prospect of limited government won’t pose too big a threat to the political class, not to mention the people who feed off them.

And so the wheels of democracy turn. And will continue to turn, until they fall off.