Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Gas surely is expensive these days. So why isn’t the government doing something about it? (Whether it can or should is a question certainly worth asking, but play along.) After all those oil executives were perp-walked into those Congressional hearings, all we have to show for deliberative democracy is a bill that stops the stockpiling of oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which everyone who voted “Yes” agrees is a meaningless gesture. (Just once, I'd like to see an oil exec refuse to testify, saying that his daily business of producing gasoline and getting it into pumps all around the country at a price that eliminates shortages and surpluses is difficult work, a problem that no group of Congressman with political tools and incentives could hope to solve, so he's too busy to come in and give the Congressmen their sound bites today.) There is certainly no shortage of ideas about what to do – open up areas currently off-limits to drilling, subsidize public transportation, etc. Some of these ideas are bad, but surely a compromise could be found.

Could, but probably won’t, because the incentives of politicians often work against actually legislating. The most widely used model in political science is probably the median-voter model, which asserts that people’s preferences on an issue are distributed on a bell curve. The greatest votes are to be had in the middle, and so competitive politics forces us there, i.e. toward compromise and away from all-or-nothing. This is, I think, a reasonable model of macro-politics (not too much welfare state, not too little either), but often fails as a model of micro-politics.

It is probably true that Americans would prefer some Democratic and Republican proposals passed together to nothing passing (or only something trivial passing, like the SPR pause). But politics is about winning elections, not about doing what the people want. If politicians on both sides can plausibly blame the other side for inaction, inaction is what we will get. This outcome is more likely if the population knows or cares little about the details of policy, or if citizens with the most extreme preferences (who will reject compromise) have unusual sway in politicians’ decisions.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It may be that gridlock by design (even deceitful design), like government divided by party, helps restrain government spending and growth. Liberty does not have a big constituency, and so a Congress full of vituperation and blame may be a Congress that doesn’t need to grab more money and write more freedom-destroying rules. (This meme has been out there for awhile, but see a dissenting view here. )

The incentive for gridlock is perhaps why extremists so often go to court to get their ends, as in the recent California Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. A bare majority of a high court is enough to get sweeping change enacted, and judges typically do not have to please the electorate by cultivating blame for the other side. It is certainly a reason not to get romantic about politics, to invest your hopes in it. Politicians have incentives too, and often they do not lend themselves to solving “public” problems.



Blogger Joshua said...

The downside of gridlock, of course, is that it makes it hard for Congresscritters to claim they're getting anything done. This might explain their otherwise inexplicable penchant for meddling in relatively trivial matters (see Sen. Arlen Specter and "Spygate", for one notorious example) even as they dither on more substantive ones.

12:01 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

If the inability to get things done can be plausibly be painted as all the other guy's fault, though, not getting anything done can actually work out best for an elected official.

11:39 AM  

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