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Hardly anyone would argue with the idea that there is a deep, bipartisan, and society-wide dissatisfaction with the size, cost, scope, and dismal performance of modern American government. But, over the past decade, fueled in particular by the rhetoric of Campaign Finance Reform in general and of the John McCain presidential campaign in particular, a comforting lie has taken center stage in our politics: that our government has become corrupted and unresponsive to the needs of the average citizen because of the influence of "special interests", shadowy cliques of (mostly) businessmen and their lobbyists who twist politicians and government to their own greedy ends. Jonathan Rauch offers a powerful corrective to this view. He starts out from a couple of disturbing facts: first, that it is the average citizens themselves who make up today's "special interest" groups:
The...problem with the term 'special-interest gridlock' is its implication that a few fat cats manipulate the system for their own narrow advantage. But the fact is that the American system of governance today is much less at the mercy of any narrow, manipulative few than at any times in the past. [...] Today everyone is organized, and everyone is part of an interest group. We have met the special interests, and they are us.
and second, that though each of us would like to believe that our own group is uniquely benign and public-interested, all such groups are ultimately self-interested:
The fact is that all groups, without exception, claim to be serving some larger good, and almost all believe it. And all groups, without exception, are lobbying for more of whatever it is that their members want, generally at some expense to non-members. By the same token, every single law, regulation, subsidy, and program creates losers as well as winners, and whether you think justice is served depends on who pays when the bill arrives.
The brutal truth then with which Mr. Rauch confronts the reader is that if the accepted diagnosis is correct, that American government is diseased and that it is being attacked by special-interests, then each of us is a pathogen and any cure--assuuming one is possible, which seems unlikely--will affect you and I and all of us.

Mr. Rauch not only accepts the idea that government is diseased but gives the disease a name:
Demosclerosis--government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt--is a gradual but continuing process. It is not like an acute fever, which attacks in a sudden crisis and galvanizes one's immune system to respond with an all-out, decisive counter-attack. It is more like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years. Like arteriosclerosis, it can be stopped only by a long-term change in behavior: a disciplined regimen of self-reform. Also like arteriosclerosis, demosclerosis gets worse if it is ignored.
Of course, any student of American history and political science will recognize that a good deal of this scleroticism is intentional, is indeed the genius of the Founders:
In the American system, it's supposed to be hard to change things. If the founders had wanted government to move quickly and easily, they wouldn't have bothered with competing power centers and a Bill of Rights. They wanted action to be deliberate, in every sense of the word. And they were right. An institution as powerful and as abusable as government ought to move carefully and, where possible, tactfully.
But democracy appears to be afflicted by one especially unfortunate tendency:
Demosclerosis happens, not because change is difficult, but because change is easier in one direction than in another. [...]

An interest-group democracy turns out to face a...problem. To create a new subsidy or anticompetitive deal is hard, but to reduce a subsidy that already exists is much harder. And to completely eliminate a subsidy or an anticompetitive arrangement is hardest of all.
So, we might imagine government spending to be something like a car jack that can never be lowered; it just keeps cranking higher and higher. And, if we extend this metaphor a tad further, even after the flat tire is fixed or replaced by ever bigger tires, still it cannot regain traction with the road below.

This entire diagnosis, much of it built upon work done by Mancur Olson on the issue of "collective action", is very compelling. But, ultimately, Mr. Rauch, especially because he's trying to be non-partisan, seems to shy away from its implications. Thus, he concedes that the enormity of modern welfare state government necessarily leads to demosclerosis:
The point is not that government's heightened activism is a bad thing, as such. Government has been doing more because people have called on it to solve their problems, and politicians are eager to help. The point, rather, is that the more actively and ambitiously government moves resources around, the more can be gained by forming a group and lobbying for a bigger share, and so the stronger the incentive to do it. There is no way out of that dilemma; the bad comes with the good. Indeed, a built-in side effect of new government programs is their tendency to summon into being new constituencies--which, in turn, often lobby for yet other new programs, keeping the whole cycle going.
And, in the concluding portion of the book although he sensibly calls for limitation on the further growth of government, this seems totally inadequate in light of what has come before. Obviously if a bloated government is failing to provide effective services in the areas where it is active, prevents its own reform, and just keeps growing while getting less and less useful, freezing it is not an adequate remedy. Instead, government must be reduced. So, when he discusses his prescriptions and tries to be balanced by saying that conservatives need to give up programs and tax breaks that their constituents like, he's absolutely right. But when he says they have to support tax increases to pay for the current government he sounds deranged. It's like telling an addict's father to buy him heroin until he kicks the habit. What are we, and Mr. Rauch, waiting for? It's time for us to stop being enablers and for the government to go cold turkey.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Jonathan Rauch Links:

    -ARCHIVES: Jonathan Rauch (D.C. Dispatch Index, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ARCHIVES: Jonathan Rauch (Independent Gay Forum)
    -ARCHIVES: Jonathan Rauch's National Journal Column (Reason)
    -ARCHIVES: Jonathan Rauch (Jewish World Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Prospect magazine articles written by Jonathan Rauch
    -BOOK CLUB: Government's End and The Paradox of American Democracy (Jonathan Rauch and John Judis, March 2000, Slate)
    -ESSAY: ETERNAL LIFE: Why government programs won't die. (Jonathan Rauch, 8/96, Reason)
    -ESSAY: Diversity in a New America: Charting the Changes (Jonathan Rauch, Winter 2002, Brookings Review)
    -ESSAY: America's Secret Weapon in the War on Terror: Americans: Quietly, the public is mobilizingÑnot in the militarized fashion of WWII but in the networked manner of WWW. (Jonathan Rauch, 11/26/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Goodbye, Jesse Helms. Conservatism Won't Be Missing You: Reagan and Helms both defied received opinion. But Reagan changed that opinion, whereas Helms deepened it. (Jonathan Rauch, 11/05/02, Atlantic Monthly)
   Attacking Iraq Would Be War, but It Wouldn't Be Aggression :Aggression is a breaking of the peace. In the case of Iraq, however, there never has been a peace to break. (Jonathan Rauch, 10/21/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: IDEAS CHANGE THE WORLD -- AND ONE THINK TANK QUIETLY DID: Pollution is a serious problem, says Resources for the Future. But don't upend markets -- extend them. (Jonathan Rauch, 10/08/02, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Once Again, a President Bush Saves the U.N. From Its Friends: The genius of Bush's speech was to show that the U.N.'s credibility, far more than the U.S.'s, is at stake. (Jonathan Rauch, 9/24/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: The Case ForÑWould You Believe?ÑHope in the Mideast: As of today, there is no light at the end of the Middle East tunnel. But there is, at least, a tunnel. (Jonathan Rauch., 9/10/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: How the New Homeland Security Department Will Work: In a new breed of government agencyÑas seen from the year 2004Ñglobal terrorism meets its match. (Jonathan Rauch, 8/13/002, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Bush's LandgrabÑand The New York Times': Condemning private property for private use is a booming national business. Just ask The New York Times. (Jonathan Rauch, 7/30/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Osama Bin Laden, Meet Your Closest Kin: Karl Marx: Today's militant Islam, like Marxism in its heyday, is a global plot without a mastermind. (Jonathan Rauch., 7/16/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: After 226 Years, an Independence Day Like No Other: What has changed since 9/11, and changed profoundly, is not what Americans do, but how they feel. (Jonathan Rauch., 7/02/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Fight Small! It's the True American Way of War: In this new (old?) world, an allergy to small, aggressive deployments may be literally self-defeating. (Jonathan Rauch, 6/18/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: The Farm Bill Is a Bad Joke With a Good Punch Line: The new farm bill is a throwback, an atavism. But it is potent with the seeds of its own destruction. (Jonathan Rauch, 5/21/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Seeing Around Corners: The new science of artificial societies suggests that real ones are both more predictable and more surprising than we thought. (Jonathan Rauch, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2002 )
    -ESSAY: America Can't Be Mommy in the Middle East: The Palestinians who send the suicide bombers will not give up terrorism until it fails. (Jonathan Rauch, 4/23/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: To Make Peace, Should Israel First Take Back Land?: No peace will hold until Palestinian hard-liners are persuaded that war is a losing proposition. (Jonathan Rauch, 3/12/02, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: The Widening Marriage Gap: America's New Class Divide (Jonathan Rauch, May 19, 2001, National Journal)
    -ESSAY: America Celebrates Earth Day 1970 -- for the 31st Time: Gloom has brought environmentalism to a dead end. The movement must swallow its pride and concede victory. (Jonathan Rauch, 5/02/00, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Reich Redux: The revised edition of the former labor secretary's memoir is an object lesson in the difference between spinning and lying. (Jonathan Rauch, February 11, 1998, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Bush Miscalculates on Gay Republicans (Jonathan Rauch, April 17, 2000, The New York Times)
    -ESSAY: Pink pistols: The gay movement often portrays homosexuals as helpless victims. Here's an alternative: Arm them. (Jonathan Rauch, March 14, 2000, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Law and Disorder: why too much due process is a dangerous thing (Jonathan Rauch, 4/30/01, The New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Father Superior: Our Greatest Modern President (Jonathan Rauch, 5/11/01, The New Republic)
    -ESSAY: A Summer Serenade (Jonathan Rauch, September 4, 1999, National Journal)
    -ESSAY: Read This or I'll Sue You (Jonathan Rauch, Feb. 6, 1999, National Journal)
    -ESSAY: Vote against McCain. Wait, Can I Say That? (Jonathan Rauch, October 11, 1997, the Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY: Give Federalism a Chance: The case for same-sex marriage. (Jonathan Rauch, ÊAugust 2, 2001, National Review)
-ESSAY: Is There An Excuse For George Nethercutt? (Jonathan Rauch, 08-12-2000, National Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Ian Ayres and Bruce Ackerman's Voting With Dollars (Jonathan Rauch, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, by Harrison G. Pope Jr., Katharine A. Phillips, and Roberto Olivardia (Jonathan Rauch, Reason)
    -SYMPOSIUM: Friends? Foes? Disconnected Strangers?: Europe and America over the next generation (A symposium featuring: Jeffrey Gedmin, Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, Mark Steyn, Michael Kelly, Jonah Goldberg, and John O'Sullivan, December 20902, The American Enterprise)
    -INTERVIEW: Running Scared: Jonathan Rauch Responds--The Atlantic's Ryan Nally recently asked Rauch to discuss the role of special-interest groups in American politics. (The Atlantic, January 1997)
    -INTERVIEW: Jonathan Rauch, the author of "Seeing Around Corners," talks about what the study of artificial societies has to tell us about the real world (Atlantic Unbound | March 29, 2002)
    -DISCUSSION: Can Government Change?: After the 1994 elections many observers thought that a downsizing of the federal government was imminent. More than two years later, however, no such downsizing has taken place, and people are wondering if change is impossible. (Cato Institute, December 4, 1996)
    -ARTICLE: Journalist Jonathan Rauch decries special interest groups (Yale Bulletin, 2/04/00)
    -ESSAY: Under the Influence: Just How Sick Is the System? (Kevin Phillips, June 13, 1994, TIME)
    -ESSAY: The Incredible Shrinking State: How New Zealand got up from down under its bureaucracy. (William D. Eggers, May 1997, Reason)
    -ESSAY: Twisting Christianity (Joel Miller, WorldNetDaily)
    -ARCHIVES: "Jonathan Rauch" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Smoldering Electorate (David Lauter, September 21, 1995, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Demosclerosis by Jonathan Rauch (Scott London)
    -REVIEW: of Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working by Jonathan Rauch (James Bennett, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Government's End (J.T. Fournier)
    -REVIEW: of Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch (David Gordon, Mises Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Mancur Olson (1932-98) (Center for Institutional Reform and the Informal Sector)
    -PRESS RELEASE: Mancur Olson, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, Dies (University of Maryland)
    -OBIT: Mancur Olson (Jonathan Wickenfeld, September 1998, PS: Political Science & Politics)
    -OBIT: Mancur Olson (1932-1998) (James M. Buchanan, June 1998, Minneapolis Fed)
    -TRIBUTE: Mancur Olson 1932-1998
    -TRIBUTE: In Memory of Mancur Olson (J. Bradford DeLong, July 10, 2002)
    -PBS: Think Tank: Biography: Mancur Olson
    -ARCHIVES: "mancur olson" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups
    -REVIEW: of Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships by Mancur Olson (David Gordon, Mises Review)