Time and again, the media decries gridlock in the government. Papers and pundits shout that “the government halts progress!” or “the government is broken!” or “the government can’t get anything done!”
Although our hero motifs usually include powerful entities marching toward determined goals, and our hopes for “progress” include drastic changes from our current state, we need to remember that “getting things done” is not another way of saying “doing good.”
“Getting things done” is value neutral
This is a pretty simple concept. You can get bad things done, and you can get good things done. If someone isn’t getting something done, we don’t know if we should be happy that they’re not accomplishing the ritualistic sacrifice of their neighbor’s black Labrador according to their aunt’s instructions, or sad that they’re not writing a neat story about an awkward pre-schooler who learns at an early age the value of friendship and daily weight-lifting routines.
Although the concept is simple to grasp, for some reason we tend to think that if the government isn’t “getting things done” that the government must be performing poorly. This isn’t completely unreasonable, because after all, our information sources wouldn’t be so upset about the gridlock unless the government was stalling on something good, right? Hopefully you can already spot the problems with this assumption:
First, your information sources come with a bias. Just because a political commentator is upset that some bill isn’t being passed through congress doesn’t mean that the world would be better if that bill passed. You should be especially wary of commentators with whom you typically agree because you likely share those biases and you probably aren’t thinking perfectly clearly, reasonably, objectively, etc.
Second, if the paper or pundit laments the gridlock without a bias, then you have a nearly meaningless parroting of what the source thinks you want to hear. Sorrowing over an immobile congress has become such a trope that many sources seem to take it for granted that any stall is bad. They’ve given in to the myth of “getting things done.”
But just because your sources are either biased or meaningless doesn’t mean that you have to be.
How to think
Here are some things to keep in mind when you hear mournful ballads about political stagnation:
First, when governments start a program, they rarely accomplish their goals, and the program never goes away. We’ve started many wars (the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on the war against our environment, the war on war, etc.) and created many institutions to fight these wars. The funny thing is that as the government creates institutions to solve problems, the problems usually get bigger and the institutions gobble up more and more resources independent of any correlation to their accomplishments. Instead of dying when they fail, agencies typically get more funding because they can further “justify” their need to exist (“poverty has grown since our agency was created to combat it, so you need to give us even more money!”). Since the government is so bad at shuttering things that don’t work, the best solution is to not let them start in the first place. Therefore: if the government fails to get a new agency or other program done, there’s not a small chance that it’s for the best.
Second, many of your least favorite things likely came out of the government compromising to “get things done.” If you don’t like that we had slavery in the U.S., don’t forget that a compromise allowed the government to get that done. Jim Crow laws found footing and opportunity after a compromise put Rutherford B. Hayes in the white house and withdrew federal influence from the southern states. If you’re not a fan of the Iraq war or enhanced interrogation, don’t forget the congress effectively worked together to get both of those activities accomplished. If you are a fan of enhanced interrogation, don’t forget that bipartisan cooperation put the McCain-Feinstein amendment through congress. If you’re not a fan of international trade partnerships, those often found cooperative support. Your least-favorite supreme court justice is a government “accomplishment.” The government has gotten a lot done that you don’t like.
This doesn’t mean that every compromise is bad, but it does mean that you can’t ignore the costs. If the government isn’t getting things done, perhaps it’s because no one has come up with a solution that adequately mitigates the associated costs. Predictably, those who agonize over an impasse between the branches give little thought to the costs associated with their preferred act of “progress.”
Finally, remember that gridlock is part of the inherent and intended design of our government. Gridlock is a part of the checks and balances of our government. You might not like it, but you should at least recognize that it doesn’t indicate a “broken” government, but one working as intended. And I think our government works better for it. This gridlock helps minority voices be heard (instead of being run-over by quick, easy majorities). The gridlock stops the government from swinging so wildly that it destroys itself. Gridlock gives us time to identify better courses of action instead of recklessly hopping on trains destined for wreckage.
So when politics seems slow and difficult, remember that gridlock is not a bug, but a feature! There are few things more potently capable of damaging individual freedom than an unfettered government.
Keep seeking truth.
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Picture of the “Gates of Hell” attribution: Stefan Krasowski from New York, NY, USA (Gates of Hell 016) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons