I used to be a fan of the idea of gridlock. It prevented government from doing more mischief. David Harsanyi expresses this general attitude in Reason. Libertarians in particular have an attraction to gridlock because the “small government” modern Republican party may one day actually attempt to enact socially conservative legislation (instead of just jaw-jaw), but more effectually there’s the predilection toward muscular shoot-first think-second Jacksonianism which seems all-too-easily manipulated by neoconservative enthusiasts who claim to want to end “evil.”
But now I’m not sure. True, the complex nature of our government and its checks and balances mean that broad government programs are harder to enact. But once through the gauntlet it seems that changes forced through are impossible to reverse because of the same institutional barriers. With the weight of public choice driven interest groups we can never reverse course. This naturally makes every battle a war, and the consequences of a loss an acceptance of a long term status quo. A new normal, slowly lurching forward.
The analogy here is that the American ratchet toward bureaucratic sclerosis, government bloat, and regulatory expansion, is slowed down by structural parameters of our system which enforce institutional inertia. But, once the ratchet shifts forward it is basically impossible to turn because the same structure which allowed for maximal resistance to the shift of the ratchet forward is also a lock when it comes to reversal.
A contrast to this is the almost dictatorial powers that some European legislative systems have. The ratchet has moved forward here a great deal. And yet consider Cameron’s austerity drive in the UK or the rollback of Swedish socialism. Public expenditures were 71 percent of Swedish GDP in 1993, and are now 52 percent!
We are a nation of laws first and foremost. But sometimes laws were written and designed for conditions which no longer hold. Over the next few generations we’ll be facing major structural obstacles to the maintenance of current government services. Politicians will need some power to clean house, or the house will burn down.