The Agenda

Steven Teles’s Really Important Essay on Kludgeocracy

Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University of a center-left bent and, among many other things, a friend of The Agenda, has written a highly stimulating essay on “Kludgeocracy.” Essentially, Steve argues that while U.S. political conflicts revolve around the size of the state, the opacity of the state is at least equally important. This opacity is, in Steve’s view, greatly exacerbated by intergovernmentalism, and here Steve draws on the work of Michael Greve, author of The Upside-Down Constitution and a scathing critic of what he calls “cartel federalism.” For example, Steve writes:

Because administering programs through intergovernmental cooperation introduces pervasive coordination problems into even rather simple governmental functions, the odds that programs with shared rather than solo responsibility will have unintended consequences and sluggish administration are, inevitably, high.

But beyond the hit to public sector efficiency, the blame-avoidance that lies at the heart of Kludgeocracy has troubling normative implications as well:

Kludgeocracy is also a significant threat to the quality of our democracy. The complexity that makes so much of American public policy vexing and wasteful for ordinary citizens and governments, however, is also what makes it so easy for organized interests to profit off the state’s largesse. The power of organized interests varies in direct proportion to the visibility of the issue. As Mark Smith argues in American Business and Political Power, corporations are most likely to get their way when political issues are out of the public gaze. It is when the “zone of conflict” expands that the power of organized interests is easiest to challenge. That is why business invests so much money in politics — to keep issues off the agenda.

Policy complexity is valuable for those seeking to extract rents from government because it muddies the waters, making it hard to see just who is benefitting and how, and so obscuring the actual mechanism of political action that it is difficult to mobilize against it. That’s why business prefers its benefits in the tax code, or in obscure regulatory advantages, rather than in straightforward handouts from the state. Politicians may posture against “corporate welfare,” but kludgeocracy makes it hard for the public to focus on the various handouts to business, and thus to effectively target their anger. The consequence is that anger diffuses onto our system of government as a whole, leading to a loss of trust and cynicism at the possibility that the public sector can be an efficient instrument of the public good. [Emphasis added]

As Steve goes on to explain, advocates of state expansion profit mightily from the confusion engendered by policy complexity. Steve’s essay is tremendously important, and it deserves a wide audience, particularly among conservatives. He makes the case for the importance of Kludgeocracy to the political right as follows:

Pursuing public goals through regulation and litigation doesn’t eliminate the costs of government, but it does make it hard for citizens to see the costs of public action, which appear in the prices of goods and services rather than on the government’s books. While cutting their friends in on the action might seem like a reasonable pound of flesh to extract in exchange for permitting new areas of government activity, the real effect is to turn private actors into part of the lobby for entrenching government activity. 

While liberals are harmed by the opacity of kludgeocracy’s successes, conservatives are hurt by the lack of traceability of its failures. The fact that so much of our welfare state is jointly administered — either inter-governmentally or through contracting with private agents — makes it hard for Americans to attribute responsibility when things go wrong, thus leading blame to be spread over government in general, rather than affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good. The consequence of complexity, then, is diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship. [Emphasis added]

I hope to revisit this theme in the future.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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