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‘Unlearning’: A Hail Mary Government Cannot Stand



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Jay, your lamentation on “we get the government we deserve” is spot on, and I firmly believe it has everything to do with the larger culture (not pop culture, but the totality of our sense of values, priorities, level of civic education, etc.). But I think what is happening now is more than a deep, bitter ideological split. It is an “unlearning” of government.

The fiscal-cliff “deal” is a perfect example of unlearning how to govern. First, one cannot govern through Hail Marys. It simply cannot be expected that serious, thoughtful legislation or policy can be created under conditions little short of panic. Unbearable pressure from within and without government cannot lead to even barely optimal solutions. Some day, perhaps very soon, like February, the Hail Mary approach will fail. It will fail for lots of good reasons: The crisis was too complex, a bargain couldn’t be reached, particular interests prevailed over common interest, whatever. You can get away with a Hail Mary once, or occasionally, but it is a huge gamble to assume things will always fall into place. 

Second, and related, the more we come to rely on Hail Marys, the more we assume that we’ll always solve a crisis or problem at the last minute. That is destructive of any common sense of responsible governance. It takes away the rightful sense of urgency in identifying and debating problems, or in proposing proper legislation. We no longer take seriously the art of governing, not solely because of selfish interests, but because we the people through Congress can always kick the can down the road, and pull out a last-minute score. That is the unlearning of government, and the more it becomes the accepted way to legislate, the more atrophied become the regular organs or patterns of governance. I don’t know how many new senators there have been since 2010, but whatever the number is (say ten, one-tenth of the entire chamber), they’ve never passed a constitutionally mandated budget; indeed, they may not know how to, since it is not part of their governing experience. Instead, they only know how to fulfill their budgetary function through continuing resolutions. That becomes their new normal, and they have “unlearned” government. 

Ad hoc government cannot survive, especially if it eats away at and replaces long-established custom, represented by a written constitution. Our first national attempt at government, the Articles of Confederation, did not last, as they were not strong enough to deal with the pressing issues of post-colonial governance. How much less can the adoption of ad hoc approaches in a far larger, far more complex, far more divided nation. Again, I would argue that we are embarked on a great experiment in unlearning government and seeing how much national patrimony we can waste before our system collapses under the natural weight of selfish and sectional interest. 



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