Why the Kludgeocracy is Never Going Away, and Why That is not Necessarily a Bad Thing

Earlier, we looked at the notion that U.S. policy has become a Kludgeocracy, promoted by John’s Hopkins researcher Steven M Teles. Teles argues that our government is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.”

Teles uses talks about the kludegeocracies of our policy ranging including

the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which
has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher
education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation,

Teles argues that Kludgeocracy is baked into the very structure of our governance. That the continuing tension and competition between the states and federal government, the multiple “veto points” for any new law, the requirements for super majorities in the Senate, lead to the creation of complex and incoherent policies, with potential for excessive rent seeking. The result of this are policy choices that do not serve the goals of either liberalism or conservatism Teles acknowledges that it may be impossible to eliminate kludgeocracy , but he does advocate several steps to reduce it.

  • We have to make the problem visible. Citizens can not solve a problem if they can’t see it. That’s one of the main reasons he gave a name to it.
  • We need to simplify our methods of policy creation. Teles advocates abolishing the filibuster, and making the relationship between federal and state governments more clear.
  • Make the costs of policy choices more transparent. Right now, many of our policies are carried out by means of tax credits, grants, and other mechanisms that make it difficult, if not impossible to accurately calculate the costs of any policy

 Ilya Somin agrees that Kludgeocracy is a problem, but claims that it is inherent in the size and scope of our government.

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.

Somin disagrees that federalism is a significant contributor to the problem, instead stating that the federal / state split has helped to limit the size of the government. He also believes that contracting functions out to private industry does is not a major contributor.

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.

Somin’s main solution for the Kludgeocracy problem is to reduce the size and especially the scope of government

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. 

In our technically complex and interconnected world, a robust government is a necessity. As the Covid-19 crisis demonstrates, we need a government that can perform a multitude of functions, and do so efficiently and justly.

Writing for the Century Foundation, Harold Pollack agrees with many of Telis’s main points

Too much of our policy landscape is marred by ugly software patches barnacled onto existing policies. The result isn’t pretty. It’s also often ineffective. Too often, policy complexity creates unintended harms. Rube Goldberg constructions create too many opportunities for rent-seeking by lobbyists, House committee chairs, and other insiders who are well-positioned to exploit these complexities. Meanwhile, individual citizens are often left bewildered and vulnerable, for example to the tender ministrations of the financial services industry involved with 401(k) and tax-advantaged college retirement savings programs.

Yet at the same time, Pollack is uncomfortable with some of the conclusions that Telis draws, and is particularly concerned by the way Telis paints complexity as the enemy.

Consider federal cash assistance to the disabled. Some disabilities are readily observed. Some are not. Some disabilities are permanent. Some are not. Some conditions bring greater variation in impairment than others. New genetic tests emerge that are sometimes clinically helpful, sometimes not.

There’s just a huge amount of inherent complexity. These complexities aren’t going away. They produce correspondingly huge demands on bureaucratic acumen and intelligence to execute, and to continually update, disability policy in a fair and efficient manner. We can’t avoid adding patches along the way. Policies must adjust when new psychotropic drugs or HIV medications comes along. New public understandings of conditions such as childhood autism must be translated into public policy.

These problems are made harder to manage by our huge and diverse population, and by our fragmented form of government. Yet many of these problems would remain vexing to a small, socially cohesive, highly centralized social democracy. Other domains such as environmental policy or the proper design of health insurance exchange have similar features.

The prescription that Pollack writes is that we embrace the complexity and pay attention to the details of public policy. He points to a 20,000 page disability manual and states

Length isn’t the fundamental problem, anyway. It’s what’s actually written on those 20,000 pages that really matters. Maybe even more important is how that 20,000 pages is continually edited, proofread, updated, and fixed. That’s where much of the art of public policy actually resides

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