Monday, May 18, 2009

California's Government Overload

Here is LA Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez on "California's Democracy Overload":

Think of it this way: Much of the life of an average citizen is lived in the spirit of indifference, if not outright defiance, toward the political system. From time to time, we're all expected to cast a ballot, tune in to what's going on at city hall, the statehouse, Capitol Hill, and either express our grievances or throw our support to one cause or candidate or another. Our general indifference is interrupted by intense moments of engagement. But to ask voters to make too many decisions too much of the time tips the delicate balance between indifference and engagement, and that can lead to civic contempt…[I]t's time for the good-government types to stop bemoaning the state of California's direct democracy and its voters and start remembering that, for most of us, in politics as in so much else, less is more. We're going to continue living out our days not thinking intensely about the inner workings of government. So find a way to make our representatives do their jobs.

Aha... after centuries of experience with representative democracy in the US and UK, the solution is as easy, and somehow still undiscovered, as "making our representatives do their jobs." Mr. Rodriguez goes on to bemoan the fact that having to constantly monitor the government stresses Californians out, which means that California's government by direct referendum is increasingly not just a political but a mental-healthcatastrophe.

On that latter point I agree, but I suggest that Mr. Rodriguez does not draw the proper lessons. It is true that citizens are too busy, and sometimes intrinsically too poorly informed, to make sense of their government. The exception is telling in its own right -- those who pay the most attention to the workings of government are those who have the most to gain from it at the expense of their fellow citizens. (Sugar farmers pay a lot of attention to American sugar protectionism, sugar consumers almost none.)

Mr. Rodriguez supposes that we should simply leave it to our representatives to monitor the conduct of state affairs and to carry out the public interest. But the reason we have politics is that we disagree on what the public interest is, and the cost of democratic politics in particular is that self-interest masquerades as public interest. This suggests that the government that has metastasized beyond the ability of citizens to effectively monitor it is itself a problem -- that the solution does not lie in magically "finding a way to make a representatives do their jobs," but in confining government to those activities that citizens can effectively monitor.

The alternative, presumably, is that our elected representatives monitor and work with the permanent administrative class. But this solution assumes too much. It assumes away the problem that the permanent administrative class may have its own self-interest, and that this may be in conflict with the interests of the poorly informed citizenry, which is poorly informed primarily because time is scarce and information expensive. (A cynic might even suggest that one of the reasons laws are written in such impenetrable lawyerese is to make citizen monitoring difficult, much the way lawyers throw around so much Latin.) It assumes away the problem of collusion between representatives and administrators, so that the former may be re-elected and the latter may enhance their power to direct others’ lives.

If the citizens can no longer effectively monitor the state, that is not a problem of the citizens, nor is it a problem for clever political engineers to solve. It is a problem of the government simply doing too much for a society that hopes to remain free, and that has become a permanent, self-sustaining, even parasitical interest group of its own. If the citizens cannot have a good understanding of a government function, good enough to decide whether they are for or against it after an objective 30 seconds of presentation, the government shouldn't be doing it.


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