What, indeed, is governance?

Francis Fukuyama wrote a post that everyone seems to want to discuss. The main thrust of his argument is:

Conversely, I would argue that the quality of governance in the US tends to be low precisely because of a continuing tradition of Jacksonian populism. Americans with their democratic roots generally do not trust elite bureaucrats to the extent that the French, Germans, British, or Japanese have in years past. This distrust leads to micromanagement by Congress through proliferating rules and complex, self-contradictory legislative mandates which make poor quality governance a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US is thus caught in a low-level equilibrium trap, in which a hobbled bureaucracy validates everyone’s view that the government can’t do anything competently. The origins of this, as Martin Shefter pointed out many years ago, is due to the fact that democracy preceded bureaucratic consolidation in contrast to European democracies that arose out of aristocratic regimes.

This description seems "descriptively correct" to Yglesias, who wants more bureaucrats making decisions. I don’t know what any of that means, but I think Fukuyama is pretty confused (Ygleasias too).

Fukuyama wonders why "democracy" produces such wildly different outcomes in terms of quality of governance.

All this analysis is plagued by the unmentioned fact that democracy is not functionally possible. There is no way for "the people" to govern that does not immediately end in mass chaos. Ask "the people" what they want and you’ll get a blank stare – tell them what they want in the right way and they’ll want whatever you tell them to want. So, when we see a "democratic country," we should instantly recognize that what we’re really seeing is a country run by some other sort of government. The trick is figuring out what that sort of government is.

(Incidentally, this is why I find Bruce Bueno de Mesquita so uninteresting. His analysis is often good, but he assumes that a democracy is a government of the people, which is absurd).

In the US, for example, we have a government run by universities, the media, and the bureaucracy. They govern through a network of alliances that are not often discussed, but not exactly hidden either.

The reason democracies are so different is that there are no democracies (and there can’t be any, thank God). It would be so much easier for all these people to understand how government works if they knew who the government actually was.

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8 Responses to What, indeed, is governance?

  1. Borepatch says:

    Fukuyama confused? Say it isn’t so.

    Just another fall out from the “End of History” [/sarcasm]

  2. Fukuyama’s Asian racism is pretty blatant. Who the hell says China is well-governed- other than Fukuyama, Thomas Friedman, James Fallows, and other paid stooges? The idea bureaucracy is “hobbled” is ridiculous as well- bureaucrats, and people who like the rule of bureaucrats use this line any time they want more power for something.

    Democracy just means the people can express themselves, it doesn’t mean they have any power. There may be no “real” democracy- that is government where the people’s opinion makes a difference- but a democracy of the right people would be no worse and possibly better than the oligarchy of the wrong kind of people.

    • asdf says:

      Bureaucrats have a lot of power, but they have to operate within the rules set out by elected representatives. If congress passes a law and you don’t like it you still need to implement it. The idea that elected representatives have no power is absurd, I still see them making important policy decisions that guide and constrain the bureaucracy.

      • baduin says:

        That is exactly the point Fukuyama makes, and it is in essence correct, although, as usual, badly expressed and misunderstood by him.

        In Europe, eg, the bureaucratic machine is ruling absolutely and parliaments are only Public Relations institutions – this happens even in the member states, and any important decisions are made on the European level, when there are only bureaucrats and top executive politicians.

        In America, the Cathedral, (as Mencius calls it), of Bureaucrats, Media and Universities rules, but not absolutely. It must and does take into account some capitalists (mostly of the financial variety), with their lobbyists and bought Congressmen, and networks of think-tanks (ie, the Republican party). As the result, both sides generally get what they really want (ie capitalists get more money, and the Cathedral gets the rest).

        (Eg lately the Koch brothers and their think-tanks are pressing for reducing the expenses for public employees of cities and perhaps even states – and it will happen, since there is really no money in the cities. They want to avoid or limit the rise of local taxes, of course, and will succeed to a point).

        The Military-Industrial-Congress system is a bit of special case, but it clearly shows the necessary cooperation between sides, and, of course, the continuous exchange of people between them.

        Of course, finance is much more important, and there, of necessity, Congress is much less important – but still, it must be taken into account.

    • baduin says:

      China is not ruled all that well on the local level, since there is a lot of corruption.

      On the other hand, the central government is really trying as hard as they can to make it rich and powerful – and they had an enormous success.

      On the other hand, in America the central government is trying to do many things, but making America rich and powerful is certainly not one of them.

  3. aretae says:

    BBdM says that you can measure all sorts of stuff in real numbers, and predict with it…based on the percentage of the population that needs to be pleased in order to keep your government going.

    He furthermore says that the evidence is strong that the amount that the government screws the people is largely a function in one variable…which is that number.

    My read of 3 of his books has not said anything about democracy how you’re talking about it…

    • Foseti says:

      But his measure of “that number” in the US is the whole electorate, which is absurd

      • aretae says:

        I largely agree. I think that by BBdM’s measures (and correlates), it’s pretty clear that the size of the selectorate in the US is NOT the whole adult citizenry. But there’s some second order effects here.

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