David R. Henderson  

Schuck on Why Government Fails So Often

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I'm working my way through Peter H. Schuck, Why Government Fails So Often. It's due out next month from Princeton University Press and I'm writing a review of it. I'm over halfway through and I'm loving it. Schuck does a beautiful job of laying out all the problems with government intervention. I'll have trouble narrowing the list of juicy items to highlight in my review.

The book is subtitled "And How it Can Do Better." I'm skeptical that he'll come up with much in that department given how powerful a case he makes for the thesis in his title. But, hey, I'll keep an open mind.

As I said, there are many gems in this book. In a section on how little effect political contributions and lobbying have on changing votes, Schuck quotes the following from another author:

In 2011, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO joined together to call for a major reinvestment in American infrastructure. None passed. In 2010, most of the health care industry was either supportive or neutral on the Affordable Care Act, and if any one of them could have swung the votes of even a few Republican senators or congressmen, the desperate Democrats would have let them write almost anything they wanted into the bill. But not one Republican budged. In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus bill as a necessary boost to the economy. Not one House Republican voted for it.

Question: Who said it? If you Google, then please don't report your answer.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jason Clemens writes:

Paul Krugman

Richard Fazzone writes:

Before going any further, is the book’s premise correct? Regardless of causality, success is occurring here, like elsewhere, with the government we have. And the lives of Americans are little different than citizens of other Western countries. So is government really failing that badly or do " [w]e have an apocalypse problem"?

[broken link fixed--Econlib Ed.]

MingoV writes:

Success occurs despite government.

A man needs to run up a hill to obtain a valuable stone. He can do it in two minutes and can make sixty round trips per eight hour workday.

But, the government insists that he wear pants and shirt made of sturdy fabric, heavyweight hiking books, knee, ankle and wrist pads, leather gloves, a helmet, goggles to protect against insects, and a backpack with water, emergency rations, a first aid kit, and a flare. Plus, to help those less advantaged, he has to push a wheelchair with a fat man whose only problem is obesity. He makes it to the top in twenty minutes. He can make nine round trips per eight hour work day.

What's the problem? He still makes it up the hill.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Generally missing from these disquisitions on the "government" and "government activities," is the recognition of the development of an additional form of organization of our society in the United States.

There has come into national significance an enterprise formed and conducted for purposes of obtaining social, economic, and ideological objectives by political means. It is separate and distinct from a constitutionally delineated Republic and the provisions for the governmental mechanisms of that Republic.

That enterprise has been established as a result of the authority ceded or recognized by reason of general public acceptance of the authority and legitimacy of the enterprise to institute programs for the benefit of segments of society, through Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, education and healthcare, as well as other benefits for particular interests.

Because it's objectives are determined by political means, its establishment has been conducted and expanded by the same persons chosen by the electorate to direct the functions of the mechanisms of government. Accordingly, that distinct and separate enterprise, for its purposes, uses the instrumentality of the mechanisms of government.

As a result we are dealing with two distinct entities, whose determinations are made by a singular group of persons. That separate enterprise can be identified today as the Federal Administrative State. The formation and determination of its objectives and the means for their attainment are conducted separately from the strictures Of the Constitutional Republic.

Thus, "Governmental Intervention" is actually the operation of the Federal Administrative State seeking to attain objectives politically determined through use of the mechanisms of the government originally delineated as a Constitutional Republic.

That mechanism was not designed for, and because of its coercive powers cannot sustain its, use as an instrumentality for the purpose of enterprise of a Federal Administrative State. One or the other must fail.

Scott writes:

Depends how we define failure, I suppose. Government is pretty good at handing out money to people - social security, for all its' actuarial failings, is efficiently implemented. Likewise many grant programs. If it involves writing a check the feds can probably do it.

Anything even slightly complex, however, is probably going to be a catastrophe; don't know if Schuck touches on this (look forward to reading the book), but the federal government is, ironically, the most heavily regulated industry in the country. It performs like it. As soon as a task gets a little complicated costs and inefficiencies multiply. They're lousy at overseeing contractors as well, unfortunately, and also hamstrung in this, as in other things, by their procurement and bidding procedures, which are basically designed (unintentionally, I think) to generate cost overruns and failures.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Scott (et al.)

"Failure" of the Federal Administrative State (the true enterprise of interventions) by any definition is inevitable.

That enterprise is dependent upon the use and control of resources, relationships and human conduct through the coercive powers of the mechanisms of government; taxes for example. The conflicts in objectives sought for the benefit of particular interests through that enterprise (the Administrative State), create conflicts in the uses to be made of the powers available through the mechanisms of government (such as, but not limited to, taxation).

The great deficit in order will occur if the mechanisms of government collapse first, since they are already being seriously impaired. The effects upon individual liberty of this duality of governance have already been widely observed, examined and subject to scholarly comment.

So far, the concerns have been to deal with "symptoms;" the effects of that duality of governance that has so far been popularly accepted, rather than dealing with the true reasons for the disruption of our social order.

Gary writes:

Is the quote from David Brooks?
I remember him making similar arguments about campaign finance.

Still I think it's actually misleading to look at only the most visible issues. The issues where special interests are more likely to succeed are the ones of general disinterest. See copyright extension on existing works, subsidies for sugar farmers, monopolies for taxi drivers, or any of the million little tax loopholes.

Lots of people were paying attention to the health care bill, and lots of people were paying attention to the debate about how much to spend on infrastructure.

Roger McKinney writes:

It's good to see such a book, especially by an Ivy League prof!

Government doesn't fail at everything. It does a pretty good job at police work and self-defense. It fails when it intervenes in the marketplace to achieve political ends. It has failed at education, the war on drugs, the war on poverty and its efforts to reduce inequality. The Fed, a quasi-governmental organization has failed miserably at achieving any kind of financial stability.

As MingoV wrote, the private sector economy as succeeded in spite of a century-long assault on it by the government. rdmckinney.blogspot.com

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ McKinney -

You write:


Government doesn't fail at everything. It does a pretty good job at police work and self-defense.

2. It fails when it intervenes in the marketplace to achieve political ends. It has failed at education, the war on drugs, the war on poverty and its efforts to reduce inequality.

3. The Fed, a quasi-governmental organization has failed miserably at achieving any kind of financial stability. [numbers and emphasis added]

Your examples demonstrate that is not "government" that fails, but it is the uses of the mechanisms of governments that fail.

In example 1, mutual defense and police powers are among the designated functions of governments under most constitutions (whether or not written).

In example 2, we are observing efforts to attain sociological or economic objectives by political means (rather than attaining political objectives). Here, again, are failures in the attempts to use the mechanisms of government for functions which are outside the purview of the constitutional structure of those mechanisms.

In example 3, the attempted expansion of the functions of a financial instrumentality, originally established to supplement the liquidity deficiencies of the banking system (and thereby preserve the banking system) to broader economic objectives, again determined by political means has resulted in failures.

What has appeared, in order to deal with the limitations of the mechanisms of a constitutionally determined government, is the organization and popular acceptance of the Authority of an Administrative State, through which, by political means, particular interests seek to attain sociological, economic and ideological objectives. In doing so the Administrative State utilizes the instrumentalities of the mechanisms of the constitutionally determined government.

The failures most often arise by reason of the conflicts amongst particular interests, which cannot be resolved in the uses made of the limited functions of the mechanisms of government without seriously impairing those mechanisms.

We are already experiencing serious fiscal impairments of the mechanisms of government and deterioration in the uses of political means for the determination of objectives of the Administrative State.

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