Our most frustrating and dangerous political problems are emerging from the tension between complexity and liberty. The rising tide of crazy sweeping across our political landscape reflects a single core difficulty. The 20th century bureaucratic regulatory state simply does not work in a world of rapidly accelerating technological and cultural dynamism. We have to find an alternative.
Expanding democracy and increasingly complex global capitalism have led to the emergence of new demands. The devolution of power that accompanies expanding personal liberty is stifling the ability of government to actually create and administer the services demanded by the public. Call it the ‘Death Panel’ problem. We cannot administer the public services along the lines of the old 20th Century template without creating unaccountable bureaucracies, sufficiently insulated from political pressure to conduct their mission. These bureaucracies can get the job done, but only by becoming so expensive and unaccountable as to threaten public sovereignty.
Accountability erodes effectiveness and vice versa. Meanwhile the public grows frustrated as their demand for public services goes unmet, despite ever larger electoral mandates. The Politics of Crazy: How America Lost Its Mind and What We Can Do About It describes two sets of initiatives that could help us move beyond the spasm of irresponsible, dysfunctional politics that has seized public life.
Simplify Government Services
The most obvious public policy solution to the challenge of complexity is to build public programs in a way that dramatically lowers their administrative burden. That doesn’t mean stripping government to an 18th century model. Capitalism, liberty, and public safety would be immediate casualties of such a retreat. Instead, we should explore ways to deliver the core public services we need with a thinner, more nimble layer of bureaucratic administration.
Instead of maintaining a massive bureaucracy of regulators to enforce carbon emissions, build markets to “price-in” the climate impact of carbon fuels. Instead of trying to ban firearms, require registration and liability insurance. A vast web of social safety net programs employing tens of millions of bureaucrats to deliver could be replaced with a basic income. Our drift toward a massive government bureaucracy for health care administration could yield to universal, tax-funded insurance delivered vouchers for the purchase of private insurance. A well-structured market could even resolve our immigration problems, cheaply and peacefully.
Wherever possible, use carefully crafted markets to internalize the externalities so many government programs are designed to address. Markets let us meet public demands without creating government bureaucracies too expensive, unaccountable, and complex to maintain. With less need for direct public sector oversight, governments can deliver vital services without the need for heavy-handed, expert oversight. Market driven public services can effectively be ‘hardened’ against a potential decline in political effectiveness.
The public hasn’t embraced these ideas mostly because no one has had the courage or insight to present them. Between a Democratic Party with no ideas and a Republican Party with terrible ideas, the public is left in the gap. Whichever party is first to seize on this approach could enjoy a significant advantage in coming years.
Address the Decline of Social Capital
The devolution of power that has come with a faster, freer, more prosperous world has delivered some unintended consequences. We have not just been freed from government. The bonds that tied us together in local communities have also been weakened.
Our political system is built from the ground up on the assumption that we are tied together in a deep web of local social networks. The steady of decline of those networks, often described as “social capital,” has opened up new windows through which extremists, opportunists, and your garden-variety weirdos have been able to gain public influence. Without powerful social networks, we are largely defenseless against the politics of crazy.
Recreating some of the institutional firewalls that we’ve lost in the transition to a faster, richer world will not be easy, but technology offers us some fascinating opportunities. The book explains what some of these opportunities look like, but also seeks to make the public more aware of some the “old school” public capital institutions that can still offer an avenue to greater involvement.
Neither party offers any unique protection from the politics of crazy and neither party has a lock on the potential solutions the book describes. In fact, neither party has at this point demonstrated any general awareness of the problem.
Needless to say, the political bloc that recognizes and responds to this problem first will have an advantage going forward. For all the dysfunction that has gripped the GOP, it may actually have an advantage.
Being pressed to the breaking point may force the party into a reckoning on this issue. Many of the most obvious solutions, with their emphasis on carefully crafted markets, may be a unique fit for the Republican Party’s traditional base. Being the first of the major party’s driven to the breaking point by the politics of crazy might turn out to be a long-term edge.