Beyond Government


ashington is about to succumb to old age. But at least its timing isn't bad. Although America's government is decreasingly flex- ible and adaptive, America's leading problems are increasingly non-governmental. Strangely, government's debilities may have the perverse but useful side benefit of forcing Americans to focus less on Washington at a time when our problems have become singularly unresponsive to Washington solutions.

A few years ago, at an embassy party on a sticky summer day, I chatted with a man whom I regard as one of Washington's leading analysts of public policy-a scholar and (at that time) government official who leans liberal and Democratic but is well respected by members of both parties. (I keep his name confidential here because public officials aren't supposed to talk as honestly as he did.) We got onto the subject of the country's social problems and how his outlook had changed over two decades, since the 1970s. Even back then, he considered himself a realist: He thought well-designed government programs might be able to improve social conditions by maybe 40 percent. And today? He pondered a minute, sipped his drink, and ventured: probably more on the order of 5 percent. Although he was well aware of government's weakening record of solving problems, at that moment he wasn't thinking about government. He was thinking about a profound change in the nature of the country's problems.

As a rule, large, central governments are best at four kinds of missions. First, they can wage or prepare for war-something no other institution can do. Fighting two world wars and then the Cold War was easily the federal government's most important project in the 20th century, and also the most successful. Second, governments can build big national infrastructure projects: giant, one-shot bricks-and-mortar programs that are designed to leave tracks or roads on the ground for years. The federal government built the interstate highway system, ran the Manhattan Project and flew astronauts to the moon. Insofar as those were focused, do-it-once projects, they succeeded. (By contrast, when the government tried to convert NASA to an ongoing concern, expecting it to adapt without giving it a clear mission, the space program ran into trouble.) Third, although government is lousy at providing services or manipulating human behavior, it is good at writing checks. By doing so, it set up the basic safety-net programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance. Finally, government is good at setting minimum standards of political and social freedom. Thus it struck down local barriers to opportunity for blacks, something that no other institution could have done.

On balance, Washington did all those things quite well. Then, having done them, it looked at itself and found that it had been transformed, and it looked around and saw that the world, too, had been transformed. Today we meet the result of both transformations: Washington's golden age, a roughly 30-year period beginning with the New Deal, is over, for good.

Government was transformed partly by its prior successes; it was a victim of its own brand of imperial overstretch. Encouraged by the successes of a relatively flexible government doing relatively manageable tasks, people began to say things like "If we can send a man to the moon, then by God we can solve [here insert favorite unmet social need]"-as though because government can do some things well, it should be expected to do all things well. People didn't see that a government adept at mailing Social Security checks is not necessarily adept at running a health-care system, nor did they see how they might calcify government by demanding too much from it. A million intricate social and human missions were heaped on Washington's docket, each to be accomplished by many programs defended by countless constituencies-all at a time when Washington's adaptability had been gravely diminished.

Meanwhile, however, the world was changing. Much as viruses mutate to resist vaccines, so the country's problems changed in ways that have defeated the postwar toolbox of centralized government programs. By the 1990s, America's leading problems-not the only problems but certainly the most important ones-related not to the physical infrastructure but to the social and moral infrastructure. The murder rate doubled between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, and would have been higher still if not for improved medical care (a homicide occurs only if the victim dies). A young black man in Watts or the South Side of Chicago was likelier to be killed in violence than was a soldier during an average tour in Vietnam. American high school students performed less well than either their parents' generation or their peers in other developed countries, and many of the schools became physically dangerous as well as educationally bankrupt. Early in the 20th century, America saved more than almost any other developed country; by the end of the century, its personal saving rate was at the bottom of the heap. The divorce rate more than doubled between 1960 and 1980; from 1960 to 1995, the illegitimacy rate rose from 5 percent to more than 30 percent. In 1970, one in nine American children lived in a fatherless home; by 1997 more than one in four did (including 60 percent of black children). The link between fatherlessness and pathology-poverty, violence, crime, mental illness, poor education and other social harm-is now beyond denying.

The point is not that all these problems are getting worse. Some of the alarming trends have begun to turn around, partly because people began to focus on them. Rather, the point is that the nature of the country's most pressing problems changed. In 1960, a teen-ager was twice as likely to die of cancer as to be killed by somebody else; only 20 years later, the odds were reversed. Not only did cancer deaths decrease, but killings increased. While we developed the medical technology to prevent and treat cancer, we lost our grip on the social technology to prevent and treat violence, which in theory is more preventable. This seems almost crazy. Who could ever have imagined?

Government no doubt had some role in creating or complicating these problems; no doubt it must play some role in reducing or ameliorating them. But in comparison to family, community, church, school and self, government is the social institution that is least well adapted to solving them. Washington can write a check and build a bomb, but divorce and crime are not the kinds of problems the government can throw money at or solve with a crash development program. Even the most adroit public sector cannot rebuild character the way it can rebuild roads.

As I write these words on the doorstep of the new century, America is enjoying a period of resurgence. Its social and economic problems are not all solved, but many of the trends are going in the right direction. The economy has been performing remarkably well; crime and divorce rates have declined, although they remain well above the levels of the early 1960s and before; people are living longer and staying healthier. No doubt the future will bring setbacks, crises and always plenty of troubles. Still, the contrast between the government's decline and the republic's vigor serves as a powerful reminder that government's end is a disappointment, but it is not a death warrant. It is less a death warrant, in fact, than it is a ticket to whatever comes next.

Beyond Blame

When he left office in 1981, Jimmy Carter delivered a warning. "Today, as people have become ever more doubtful of the ability of the government to deal with our problems, we are increasingly drawn to single-issue groups and special-interest organizations to ensure that, whatever else happens, our own personal views and our own private interests are protected," he said. "This is a disturbing factor in American political life. It tends to distort our purposes, because the national interest is not always the sum of all our single or special interests." He was right then, and he is still right.

To hope that Americans will desist from joining groups that advance their interests, or from voting for politicians who do them favors, is neither realistic nor fair. But to hope that they will understand how their activities contribute to their government's problems-well, that doesn't seem so crazy. Understanding isn't a solution (there is no solution), but it is a big help. It can make the political climate more congenial to radical incrementalism by showing people why constant, consistent pressure from the political center can work, and why spasmodic "revolutions" from the political extremes so often fail. It can also, perhaps, make the public a little better aware of how the blame game, with its "not my fault" mentality, serves the interests of members of the transfer-seeking class, who organize into interest groups in an effort to enlarge their share of the pie.

The rise of the professional transfer-seeking economy, with its breathtaking ability to mobilize antagonism and neutralize enemies, is, of course, a problem. But behind every transfer-seeking professional is a client saying "Gimme," or at least saying "Protect me." In its mindlessly mechanical way, the transfer-seeking game is clever. Generalized voter discontent and inflated political rhetoric about "change" trouble the transfer-seekers not at all, and often play into their hands. As the people become angrier, the groups and associations and lawyers and lobbyists and politicians tell them, "Those fiendish special interests are behind it! Hire me to protect you before they rob you blind! Vote for me to see to it that your interests are represented!" By now, you know where that leads. Blaming some villain for what is in fact a systemic problem is a guarantee that the real problem will not be confronted.

Monkeys ransack the forest for medicinal plants that kill intestinal worms. Dogs gnaw through fur and flesh to rip out ticks or fleas. So the American body politic instinctively flails against the parasite economy, casting votes for politicians who claim to be "outsiders" or who promise to fight the "special interests" that are responsible for all our suffering. No one in politics is eager to repudiate the politics of blame and tell the people the truth: that they-we-are the special interests. Who finances and sustains the parasite economy? Not villainous lobbyists or crooked insiders or crafty foreigners. Look in the mirror.

For the public to get its mind fully around its deep complicity in government's debilitation will, no doubt, be a process of decades. But then, we have decades, and understanding can make a big difference on the margins, which is, after all, where the action is going to be for the indefinite future. In 1982, economist Mancur Olson ended his book The Rise and Decline of Nations (Yale University Press) on a hopeful note. "Ideas certainly do make a difference," he wrote. "May we not then reasonably expect, if special interests are (as I have claimed) harmful to economic growth, full employment, coherent government, equal opportunity and social mobility, that students of the matter will become increasingly aware of this as time goes on? And that the awareness eventually will spread to larger and larger proportions of the population? And that this wider awareness will greatly limit the losses from the special interests? That is what I expect, at least when I am searching for a happy ending."

A year or two before he died, when I last saw him, Mancur Olson was still searching for that happy ending, and he reported being optimistic three days out of five. His spirit was the proper one.

A New Entente

So the end of government is not, after all, a sad time. It's sad, I suppose, if you happen to be a liberal idealist or a conservative revolutionary, for whom nothing less than a new dawn will do. For the rest of us, it is a time of maturely diminished expectations combined with maturely persistent ministrations.

That combination, admittedly, isn't an easy balance to strike, because the two elements are in tension, pulling in opposite directions. One message seems to be "It's all over. You can never win, so give up." The other message seems to be "Keep at it! Open the government and the economy! You'll never finish the job, but every little bit helps!" It's fair to wonder: If there can be no promise of final victory, how can anyone sustain enthusiasm for the fight?

In the end, that is why it's important to adjust our attitudes to government, as well as to adjust government. Like the aging person who knows he'll never be young again but who nevertheless understands why he should stay on his diet and exercise every day, Americans need to understand the limits of change without surrendering to passivity. They need to understand what is doable. Then they need to do it.

To some extent, I think, that sort of mental adjustment is under way. It seemed to begin somewhere around the time the second Republican Revolution flared and burned out. The Washington of the late 1990s was a more jaded but also more realistic place than the Washington of the late 1980s or-certainly-the Washington of the late 1970s or the late 1960s. Voters and politicians and activists all have a long way to go to adjust to government's end. If you squint, however, you can just make out the way ahead toward a new entente between the people and their government: one that deals with government as it has come to be and as it will remain, rather than as we may wish it were or as we imagine it once was.

After half a century of ballyhooed "new deals" in American political life-the original New Deal and then the Fair Deal and the New Frontier and the Great Society and the Reagan Revolution and the Republican Revolution and whatever else-comes a hush, and then a still, small voice. It speaks, to those who have the patience and maturity to listen, of what is perhaps the most momentous new deal of all. Call it Real Life.

From the book, Government's End. Copyright 1999 by Jonathan Rauch. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs. All rights reserved.

Jonathan Rauch is a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for National Journal. He has also written for The Economist , the New Republic, Fortune, The Atlantic, and other publications.

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