In Praise of “Dysfunctional” Government


With the so-called “fiscal cliff” legislation still in the balance, we have been hearing from many quarters lately (even from Germany) that government in Washington has become “dysfunctional”: “What did we elect those good-for-nothing inside-the-beltway loafers for: to get something done!”

But many times the best part of getting something done is getting nothing done. The Founders built dysfunctionalism into the system. When elected representatives can’t reach a consensus even on a fully compromise bill (and the Senate’s “fiscal cliff” bill is truly that), it usually means there isn’t sufficient consensus in the country to do anything.  And not doing anything until you get consensus is usually a wise course of (in)action.

Barack Obama has asserted that he was reelected with a campaign promise to raise taxes on Americans who make more than $250,000 a year.  He’s right about that, and, as David Bahnsen observes, if Republicans don’t want to take that medicine, then maybe they should start getting more votes so Democrats can’t keep prescribing it.

Alternatively, many House Republicans were elected in deeply red districts that want both taxes and spending to go way, way down. They have no incentive to compromise with the Senate and with Obama (and with mediating Republicans, for that matter). First, they got elected by people who want lower taxes and less spending. Second, most of them want lower taxes and less spending themselves.  Why would they go along with a plan they oppose? For “the good of the country”? But they don’t think the bill is for the country’s good, and they’ll be penalized at the ballot box if they support it. Letting taxes rise to Clinton-era levels as the price for not getting an inferior bill passed quickly only puts them in a better bargaining position. Obama will be blamed by his electorate for not getting the job done. But their electorate is much, much smaller — a single congressional district, and much more conservative.  They don’t have to answer to a nation. They only have to answer to a district. To that district, “dysfunction” = “not functioning to raise taxes and increase spending.” “Dysfunctional” government is just fine, thank you.

The genius of the American experiment is that you don’t get your own way — and certainly not quickly.  We do have examples of societies that get laws passed and enacted very quickly: political theories and practitioners from Robespierre to Marx to Stalin to Hitler to Amin to Pol Pot were miffed by the clunky, cumbersome checks and balances of constitutional systems. They hated “dysfunctional” government and soon devised very functional — and tyrannical — government.

As we all jollily fall over the “fiscal cliff,” let’s thank God for Founders who infinitely preferred annoying dysfunction to tyrannical function.

Paraphrasing Gordon Gekko , “Dysfunction is good.”


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