What’s the matter with gridlock?

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.

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9 Responses to What’s the matter with gridlock?

  1. Craig says:

    This is why I’d like to see an automatic sunset for all legislation. Some period between maybe four years and, at most, ten. At that point the law simply becomes null and void unless re-enacted. That would keep them busy enough to satisfy gridlock fans and perhaps undo or ameliorate the ratchet.

  2. RandyB says:

    Exactly. George Will wrote in the 80s to the effect that the very organizational structure of Congress is to find new things for the government to get involved in. There’s no Committee on Downsizing, Sunsetting and Dispensing with Archaic Roles.

    The divided government that existed through the 80s-90s was sometimes called “benign gridlock.” It worked then.

    But is there any way to implement the politics of contraction?

  3. Also, those groups that donate to both sides have a good chance of getting their legislation through the barrier.

    The problem seems to be that so long as politicians have a heavy hand in the profitability or failure of business, the puppet masters will continue to go to great expense to ensure their cooperation.

  4. kurt9 says:

    Gridlock is good. Government does damage, period. Anything that limits the ability of government to do damage is always a net positive for the rest of society. Hence, permanent gridlock would be a very good thing and is something we should work to create.

  5. Richard says:

    That’s why I don’t see the point of those who say, for example, that Mike Castle would have been a better candidate than O’Donnell. So what? As long as the Repubicans have enough Senate votes to fillibuster, what do I care who holds the gavel on which committee? Any legislation that I would like them to pass would be vetoed anyway. Our function, for the rest of the Obama administration, is to stand athwart them, yelling stop.

  6. Polichinello says:

    Gridlock works with a growing economy, because it holds the government in check while the private sphere grows. We saw this during the 90s when the cyberage kicked off while the government was restrained by a GOP congress and Democratic president.

    The problem with it comes when you have to deal with excessive regulation that inhibits private growth. This will probably be the case with Obamacare, but we have deregulated before (under Democrats, no less), and we can do it again.

  7. King Mob says:

    The idea of an automatic sunset on laws is good. A more radical suggestion has been to have a second congress that exists solely to eliminate legislation.

  8. Johnson says:

    Using 1993 as a basepoint for Sweden is highly misleading. That year marked the bottom of a recession that was worse than the current one in the US. The combination of automatic stabilizers, the heavy costs of recapitalizing the banking sector and a shrunken GDP resulted in an abnormally high gov spending of 71% of GDP. Going down to 52% is more akin to normalization. Of course, it’s higher than 52% today, for similar reasons as in 1993 and earlier recessions.

    We can compare with Sweden’s economic recession in the early 1980s. Expenditure jumped from half of GDP in 1980 to two thirds in 1982 (stabilizers, smaller GDP and stimulus). But that 67% was fuelled by a 12% budget deficit. In other words the tax intake only went up to 55% of GDP. With the return of good times the deficit disappeared and by the end of the decade spanding as a share of GDP was almost back to half of GDP, with the tax surplus used to pay down debt. Very similar to the levels in the years before this current crisis.

    I’m surprised that it was a Swede who wrote the article you linked and referenced. He should have known better. But when I read further I realized he’s acting as cheerleader for the current government of Sweden, not as an impartial analysist. So take what he says with a grain of salt, he’s prone to exaggerations and cherry-picking data.

  9. AMcguinn says:

    Some measures that seem to restrict government can backfire, if they restrict reversing changes more than making new changes.

    I looked at one some years ago – supermajority voting in the European Council: http://anomalyuk.blogspot.com/2005/09/irreversibility.html

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