Steven Teles on “Kludgeocracy” and the Role of Government in Society

In the fall issue of National Affairs, Johns Hopkins political scientist Steven Teles has an interesting article on what he dubs the problem of “kludgeocracy” in American government:

In recent decades, American politics has been dominated, at least rhetorically, by a battle over the size of government. But that is not what the next few decades of our politics will be about. With the frontiers of the state roughly fixed, the issues that will define our major debates will concern the complexity of government, rather than its sheer scope.

With that complexity has also come incoherence. Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly worried that America is, in Friedrich Hayek’s ominous terms, on the road to serfdom. But this concern ascribes vastly greater purpose and design to our approach to public policy than is truly warranted. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever.

The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government.

Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge. But you cannot come to terms with such a problem until you can properly name it. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics — liberalism or conservatism, big government or small — we have no name for the dispute between complexity and simplicity in government, which cuts across those more familiar ideological divisions. For lack of a better alternative, the problem of complexity might best be termed the challenge of “kludgeocracy.”

Teles notes several areas of public policy where complexity has led to inefficiency, incoherence, and situations where powerful interest groups have been able to profit at the expense of the general public. He also notes that many of these policies can’t possibly be justified on the basis of either conservative or liberal ideology.

I think Teles has focused on a important and serious problem, and I also agree that policy experts of different ideologies can find some common ground here. But I disagree with his claim that “the problem of complexity” is separate from the issue of the size and scope of government. In reality, the two are integrally linked. Government has become complex and difficult to monitor in large part because it is trying to do so many complicated things. A government that spends some 40% of our GDP and regulates nearly every aspect of our lives can’t help but be complex and often incoherent. And it also can’t help but create numerous opportunities for well-organized interest groups to exploit the power of the state for their own benefit.

Teles suggests that complexity and interest group power in American government is in large part caused by our system of federalism and separation of powers, which makes it more difficult to establish a single, coherent policy and creates many openings for interest groups. But there is little evidence to suggest that “kludgeocracy” is a lesser problem in more unitary democratic states, such as France, which is highly centralized and has a much weaker separation of powers (and stronger presidency) than the US does.

If, as Teles persuasively argues, kludgeocracy leads to bad policies that both liberals and conservatives have good reason to oppose, why don’t voters force politicians to enact reforms? The answer – as Teles recognizes – is that in most of these cases, the public has no idea what is going. A “rationally ignorant” public that often doesn’t even know very basic facts about public policy is unlikely to have the kind of nuanced knowledge needed to untangle kludgeocracy. And in a world where the scope of government is as large as it currently is, the voters wouldn’t be able to keep track of more than a small percentage of government activity even if they paid significantly more attention than they do now. In the face of public ignorance, politicians have every incentive to perpetuate kludgeocratic programs that benefit small interest groups at the expense of everyone else.

The federalism and separation of powers that Teles criticizes at least help keep the problem from getting even worse than it already is. Comparative data suggests that separation of powers helps limit the size of government. Federalism, meanwhile, gives us a chance to influence policy by voting with our feet, as well as at the ballot box; and foot voters have stronger incentives to acquire relevant information than ballot box voters do. Teles is also probably wrong to blame such practices as contracting out the provision of public services to private firms. Such firms often do become special interests that exploit the public. But the same is true – often too an even greater extent – of government employees. The voters are unlikely to be more effective at monitoring bureaucrats than contractors.

Kludgeocracy is indeed a serious problem. Yet it is in large part caused by the growth of government. And pruning that growth is an important part of any viable solution. Some of the reforms Teles suggests (particularly reducing federal grants to state governments) might help at the margin. But government is still likely to be enormously complex as long as it continues to have so many functions. Restructuring programs to make their costs more “transparent,” as Teles proposes, is unlikely to achieve much in a world where the public is often ignorant about even very basic facts about the federal budget, much less the details of particular programs.

If, as Teles suggests, “the frontiers of the state [are] roughly fixed,” then so too are those of kludgeocracy. But we need not be so pessimistic. Countries such as Canada and New Zealand have managed to reduce the size and scope of their governments significantly over the last two decades, to the point where several of them are substantially smaller than ours (though that is partly because the US government has grown so much in recent years). It will not be easy. But it is at least reasonably possible that we can emulate that success, and even surpass it. At the very least, we’re more likely to achieve that than make it possible for the public to monitor kludgeocracy in government’s current overgrown state.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that there is a distinction between scope – the range of functions government takes on – and mere size. In theory, government could spend enormous amounts of money on just a few simple functions, and thereby be very large without being very complex. By contrast, complexity is almost impossible to avoid when government has a very broad scope. In practice, however, when governments become as large as ours is today, they almost always do so by taking on a wide range of different, complicated tasks, not just a few simple ones. It is theoretically possible to have a government that, for example, spends 40% of its GDP on just defense and basic infrastructure. But we almost never see such a thing in the real world.