One constantly repeated theme these days is the idea that the government is broken. While this is a nifty talking point, it doesn’t really provide much in the way of details. Typically when folks provide an account of how the government is broken, the general idea is that the government is not doing what they think it should do. This is, obviously enough, often based the person’s specific principles. So, while folks on the left and right agree that the government is broken, they disagree on the nature of the breakage.
However, there does seem to be some general agreement about the broken aspects of government. These include scandals, corruption, overspending, inefficiency, and a marked inability to solve problems. While the nature of the breakage would make an excellent subject, I am going to provide some possible explanations as to why the government is broken.
One breaking factor is that what politicians need to do to get elected does not mesh well with doing a proper job governing. This problem dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. In Socrates‘s day there were sophists who, for the right amount of money,would teach people to sway the masses with rhetoric. When Athens was a democracy, political power rested on being able to get the support of these masses. However, as Socrates argued, governing properly is a matter of knowledge about how to govern and not merely being able to manipulate the masses. As such, the people who got elected would be skilled at swaying the masses but might not be very skilled at governing.
This is a rather hard problem to fix. After all, people have a natural tendency to overestimate the abilities and forgive the failings of people they like while doing roughly the reverse for people they dislike. Getting people to judge on the basis of merit is a core problem in critical thinking and this is something that is much broader than the matter of elections. However, the cure is well known: get people to be critical thinkers.
A comparable problem exists today. Politicians have to appeal to their base and this requires them to master the arts taught by the ancient Sophists. Also, as in the past, politicians need wealth in order to buy their way into power. Today this is in the form of campaign financing and this means that politicians need to be focused on making money. This creates three problems. First, the skills of a money maker and an effective leader are not the same. Hence, a person who is a great money maker might not be a very good leader. Second, politicians have to spend so much time preparing for the next election that they do not have the time needed to do their jobs properly. Third, the politicians are sold to the money that enables them to get and hold their office and this means that they will generally not be serving the public good but the interests of those who have helped buy them their power.
The usual solution offered for this problem is the rather vague notion of campaign funding reform. There has long been talk about limiting contributions, setting limits on spending and even requiring that all candidates spend the same amount of money (provided by the taxpayers). The main challenges here are the idea that free speech entails free spending and the power of the various special interests (ranging from corporations to teachers’ unions).
A second breaking factor is that politics tends to attract people who are interested in fame, power, and fortune. Such folks are often rather easy to corrupt by offering them what they seek. Also, politicians often have a rather high opinion of themselves which can lead to damaging hubris. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, some folks go into politics to do good or to fight for what they see as a righteous cause.
Interestingly, Socrates argued that the folks who would be best suited to run the state would not want the job. After all, highly competent people no doubt prefer to be involved in clearly productive activities rather than being involved in politics or administrative matters. While I have never held political office, I have held various administrative roles. The paper work, politics and so on is vastly less satisfying than my real job, that of professor. As such, I can see Socrates’s’ point rather clearly.
Getting competent people who will serve the general good to go into politics is rather challenging. Most such people regard politics with disgust and would rather do something else, such as run a business, practice medicine, teach, or go fishing.
A third breaking factor is that politics often creates the sort of culture of corruption that the anarchist Goldman warned people about. Even someone with the best of intentions will find that either their efforts amount to nothing or that they have become corrupted by the system (or, more correctly, the people and processes that make up the system).
Dealing with this problem requires reforming the process of politics and also reforming (or getting rid of) the people who are corrupting influences. The United States does have a general system that helps avoid certain problems, but the natural tendency of any political system is towards bloating, inefficiency and needless complications.
A fourth breaking factor is that politicians are people. While there is a certain pleasure in calling government broken, it is also fair to ask about the rest of society. Our government is a reflection of our society and perhaps our government’s broken elements merely mirror what is broken in the larger society. As Confucius would say, good government begins at home.