Whenever my family goes out for dinner, we run into the same problem. We’ll get into the car and my mom will ask me: “Jean, what do you want to eat?” I’ll name this Afghan restaurant that I love – but that my parents hate – and they’ll chuckle a bit in the front seat. My dad will make no motion to start the car, and I’ll say, “You know what, anything’s fine with me.” After a few seconds, my younger sister Valerie will pipe up with a suggestion (“Greek!”) and my dad will finally turn on the engine, as if that’s where we’re going, as if he’s taking Valerie’s choice into account. He’s not. We always eat sushi.
The Consensus Problem
When people are opinionated, even the simplest group decisions are difficult. Is going out to dinner a particularly important decision? No. So when my dad takes the reigns, we let him, and everything turns out okay. But what happens when a decision is high-stakes, when the repercussions will be enormous, and you can’t just let one person take the reigns?
This is the case when you are the US government. When you are trying to iron out the details of a law or a policy or a precedent, it’s critical that you get it right. But the problem is, what is ‘right?’ Depending on a person’s goals, backgrounds, considerations, expertise, and so forth, “right” is going to end up looking like very different things to different people. And the people in question are going to have to be very opinionated. They are deciding the fate of a nation. So when Congress, for example, is making a decision, we should expect a few things:
- The process will take a long time.
People have very strong opinions about how the government should operate, and it’s their job to either get their opinion across or rid themselves of a misguided conviction, either of which can take enormous amounts of time. This is a problem that has gotten a considerable amount of press in the past few years (i.e. “Put very simply, Congressional gridlock is killing the American dream”), severely bringing down confidence in the American government. But the slow pace of extensive debate is not a new problem, not at all. In James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, for example, Lynne Cheney notes that Alexander Hamilton gave a six-hour speech to get his points across during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, despite the fact that “his plan was in general so far from what the convention was likely to accept – and the weather so miserably hot and muggy – that delegates did not [even] bother to refute him.”
- Everyone will be unhappy.
The products of government (e.g. treaties, policies, etc.) will be amalgams of many people’s (often) conflicting desires. They are created by people who have imperfect knowledge of a subject, and are taking very different considerations into account. And they are created by people who may or may not be capable of creating the product they’re creating, even if they are trying to do the best they can. Notably, Catherine the Great, an Enlightenment-influenced Russian monarch, tried and failed to get representatives of all free Russians to come together and create a set of laws for themselves, when she organized the 1767 Legislative Commission, 20 years before the American Constitutional Convention. According to biographer Robert Massie, she found that many of the delegates, in particular those of the lower classes, simply didn’t have the background knowledge and expertise to think through the kinds of laws that were actually needed to operate a country.
- It will be hard to understand.
Government documents are hard for the layperson to understand. Not only are written in legalese, there will be a lot of context crucial to understanding them that is not readily available to us. As such, they may appear to have flaws that have in fact been carefully thought through and debated, without our knowledge.
The reason we should set these expectations is because these features of the government process are normal. Obviously we should try to improve them through various political innovations (e.g. through intensive training for government officials, like China does), but they’re not necessarily an indication that the government is failing, and that we should give up hope.
“I can’t deal with it”
But many of my peers who I’ve talked to about the government have in fact given up hope. “[Y]oung adults are coming of age in a time when the political system is looking very paralyzed and partisan. So a lot of them are shrugging their shoulders and not getting involved to begin with because of that,” says Pew Research Center Executive Vice President Paul Taylor.
It’s no wonder we gravitate towards Silicon Valley, which has a very recent and salient track record of producing tangible effects, and seem to be improving (or at least changing) our lives rapidly.
But is ignoring government the answer? Maybe, if you’re singularly driven by money or status. If you want to make the world a better place, however, you can’t. Despite what we’d like to think about the influence of grassroots groups or startup companies, our lives are still dictated by the government — and not just on a macro-level, but on a daily basis. It has jurisdiction over parts of our lives that can’t be improved by just running a startup, or starting a movement. We have to improve the government itself. We have to care about it, even if we don’t want to.