The Agenda

Further Note on Dissenting by Deciding

Reuel Marc Gerecht, one of my favorite policy thinkers, often argues that elections are a crucial first step in fostering more open societies because they force political movements to take responsibility for the more mundane demands of government. As an example, a radical Islamist political movement that has historically blamed “the far enemy” for a society’s poverty while in opposition might find that its support will evaporate if it continues to do as the party in power. In “Dissenting by Deciding,” Heather Gerken argues along similar lines:

At first glance, dissenting by deciding may seem more radical than conventional dissent because electoral minorities are able to use the apparatus of governance to express disagreement. If we look more closely, decisional dissent may make dissent less radical because it is incremental—it takes place within a space chosen by the majority—and it directs the energies of dissenters toward governance as well as resistance. Decisional dissent may empower dissenters, but it seems as likely to tame dissent by undermining its rebellious or iconoclastic possibilities. In the long run, the notion of dissenting by deciding seems likely to help us think of dissent as an everyday act of citizenship rather than an act of disaffiliation.    

This, in my view, is the central reason why fiscal stimulus measures that transfer resources from the federal to state and local governments are so important for the political left. Because state and local governments have limited options in a fiscally constrained environment, state and local officials are forced to make difficult choices across different categories of public spending. This spending discipline is likely to generate intense conflict, particularly in environments in which the authorities in question are bound by labor agreements that make it difficult to embrace productivity-enhancing reforms, as the main alternative to spending discipline is embracing tax increases. The viability of this latter strategy depends to some degree on the presence of fixed amenities in the region in question, i.e., a government in a region with an attractive climate or a region in which there is a large, historically entrenched talent agglomeration can extract more than a government in a less obviously appealing place, where the exit of highly productive people is a more potent threat to the public fisc. 

The beauty of large-scale fiscal transfers from the federal government to state and local governments, from the perspective of those who want to expand the size and scope of the state, is that these measures shield state and local taxpayers from visible tax increases through the use of debt finance. This isn’t to suggest that these fiscal transfers are necessarily inappropriate. What it does mean, however, is that those who believe that spending discipline can encourage constructive, productivity-enhancing reforms should be wary of calls to entrench these transfers rather than make them a strategy that is only pursued under exigent circumstances. This approach forces dissenters to make hard choices that might yield very positive results — or that might discredit various “rebellious or iconoclastic possibilities.”


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