What is not separable from how

Like most of what I write (when it is not satire), this should be an obvious point. Nevertheless. In social affairs, what should be done cannot be separated from how we choose to do it. A policy that would succeed and be widely lauded if chosen in one manner might crash and burn if chosen in a different way. This is a problem for technocracy, for the notion that academics and think-tankers can work out the best policy, persuade politicians via white papers and working groups to implement it, then watch the public enjoy virtuous outcomes. Even when (much more rarely than proponents claim) research is good and reliable, social affairs just do not work this way.

For identifiable policy choices that are high-stakes in terms of values or outcomes, it’s pretty obvious why this approach often fails. It is a old joke in politics that whatever choice you make will be wrong. After the fact, the sun will set, the sun will rise, and stuff will happen. Humans being humans, the good stuff will seem normal, what ought to happen, what might have happened anyway, who knows?. The bad stuff will seem like something somebody did wrong and should be held accountable for. And your political opponents will be driving that home and blaming you for the choice.

There will be corruption. There is no human enterprise of significant scale in which people do not or do not appear to sometimes place self-interest above the broader mission to which they are ostensibly engaged. This is as true in the private sector as in the public. But in the private sector people are supposed to be pursuing their self-interest. “Agency problems” are ubiquitous, and understood to be a cost of doing business. If excessive, they reflect error by management or shareholders who should have arranged incentives more cleverly or built a more cohesive culture. However, in the public sector, the same behavior is corruption, sin, contagion. Even a drop potentially rots the foundations of our institutions. Every public enterprise is corrupt, while private enterprises are just well or poorly managed.

Identifiable, consequential policy choices must be resilient to the likelihood that salient bad outcomes will be linked, in good faith or bad, to the policy, while positive effects will be vigorously contested. Absent either strong ideological “buy in” from the mass public or concrete, material benefits to a politically influential constituency, opponents will often succeed at undoing or undermining the policy, however successful your honest research suggests the nascent outcomes to be. Of course opponents will have their own disingenuous research. In the public mind and most history books, your policy will have failed.

Durable policy requires either populism ex ante or payoff ex post (or effective use of institutions like a judiciary that can remove issues from political contestation, for better and for worse).

Among liberals and technocrats “populism” has become a bad word, a synonym for a kind of vicious, collective id that demagogues like Donald Trump destructively conjure. (Thomas Frank usefully demurs.) It's much better to understand that populations are subject to systematic passions. Models that treat human groupings as mere aggregates of agents with isolated preferences and interests are badly incomplete. We must design institutions that productively accommodate what we might bloodlessly call correlation. Markets civilize greed, marriage civilizes lust. Democratic institutions are supposed to civilize populism.

Marriage is not a chastity belt, and markets do not demand vows of poverty. It is not enough to blunt or “check” the passions of the masses, as the US Senate is ostensibly designed to do. Good democratic institutions encourage a productive populism, give it effect through intelligent action then succeed in part because of the legitimacy and durability and adaptability enabled by the public’s enthusiasm. There must be traction, some channel of transmission, between public passions and the actions of governing institutions (state and parastatal). And vice versa! “Burn it all down" populism results from a loss of this traction, from a sense that governing institutions are alien, imposed, that rather than mechanisms of cautious transmission there are bales of insulation thrust between public passions and political outcomes.

Governance is a whole-of-society enterprise. It’s not enough for the metaphorical head to be smart. (That the metaphorical head tries so often to outsmart its own metaphorical body suggests that it is not really very smart at all.) Policy choices that will succeed when there is legitimacy—a sense of collective agency, widespread “buy-in”—will not when there is not. Under the institutions of contemporary liberal democracy, it is political parties and their coalitional choices that reify and render legible the passions of the public, that bind those passions to choices by government, and also reshape them as a consequence of their choices. It’s symptomatic of a failure of our institutions that more than 40% of Americans have no political party to which they are willing to make the (bidirectional!) link of identification. And no, a “none of the above” party will not solve this problem.

Technocrats do the best they can and we are where we are. Sure, we’d be better off with a multiparty democracy designed to engender four-to-six medium-tent parties. That’s not the country we live in. But your research is so promising! If it’s true that salient, controversial policy choices are unlikely to be durable without popular passion or ex post payoffs, maybe the way to go is the "submerged state”? Kludgeocracy may not be so bad after all?

You can take heart, I suppose, in my defense above of the public sector from unfair double standards surrounding “corruption”. But in a kludgeocracy you’d at least expect a lot of mismanagement. Looking at the existing submerged state, there do seem to be patterns of stakeholder payoffs that might not accord well with most of of our understandings of the mission of the state. Last year, liberals invested a lot of hope in “secret congress” (which, unfortunately, did not refer to the sort of thing that needs to be civilized by marriage). In this moment's fallen world, when you want to get some particular smart thing done, quiet may indeed be the way to go.

But there is an accountability problem. We’ve been doing the submerged state a lot, and it’s brought us to the crisis of democracy that we're in. In aggregate our skein of tax expenditures form a misshapen blob from which the broad public feels excluded and alienated, but each one was somebody's idea of smart policy. The best lobbyists have a talent for persuading themselves that the interests of their employers and those of the public are happily aligned. If only the public could be made to understand. Of course you are different.

There is no alternative to an effective state, which both makes good choices and makes them via institutions that recruit broad legitimacy for those choices, within which members of the public feel a sense of collective agency.

If you are about getting policy right, good on you. (Really!) But it isn’t enough. We need a better state.


2 Responses to “What is not separable from how”

  1. Steve Roth writes:

    “in the private sector people are supposed to be pursuing their self-interest. … in the public sector, the same behavior is corruption”

    The left needs to develop a (countervailing) “school” of political economics/political science:

    Private Choice Theory.

  2. Chris writes:

    This is interesting conceptually, and I like the contrast between market failures viewed as agency problems and governmental ones seen as corruption, but what’s the take-away? Punish corruption in government less, but focus more on industry-style “after action reports” to shape government regulations? Part of the problem there is that government moves at a much slower pace than industry, so wouldn’t be able to implement those iterative learning processes as quickly.

    Similarly, of course we all want a state that is effective, where the people feel agency and representation, but this feels like a lot of diagnosis without proposed solutions. I see these articles a lot: there’s a real and serious problem! We can identify some likely causes! But, as you say, the how is a very important point, and I don’t see any “how” in this post.

    I don’t mean to be too critical, I’m a long-time reader and love your work, but this is a common theme I feel in some of your articles. Good analysis of the problem, but not much actionable to work towards.