Why does our civil society ― the domain of markets, nonprofit groups, families, and neighborhood life ― flourish while our national government increasingly fails at its most basic function of resolving conflict in ways that build on the strengths of our people? The same people inhabit both realms, yet the performance gap between these sectors is large and growing. If we hope to shrink it, we must first understand its sources.
Civil society’s rising trajectory is remarkable. Our sweet-spot economy has expanded for nearly a decade. Unemployment and inflation are low. Stock markets have reached record highs. Real wage growth has resumed and poverty levels have declined for all groups, including children. Women now surpass men in education and many other important areas, and young black women are narrowing the earnings and education gap with their white counterparts. Most markets, including tech, are highly competitive; the Fortune 500 from 1955 have almost all died, merged, or shrunk. Many technological breakthroughs are at hand.
Civil society’s successes extend well beyond the economy. Life expectancy for most Americans is rising. Crime continues its dramatic decline in most communities. Teen pregnancy is down. Young people stay in school longer. Faded cities are reviving, spurred by immigrant energies. Our environment is healthier. Poverty, as traditionally measured, has declined substantially but far more so if measured correctly, especially by poor people’s standard of living. Civil rights protections for minorities have expanded. Our institutions of higher learning and research are still the gold standard. Americans, even if “bowling alone,” are still the world’s most civically engaged, public-spirited people. Our high and common cultures are creative and energetic.
Obviously, civil society’s success does not extend to all Americans. Persistent pockets of deep poverty spawn weak families whose children suffer destructive conditions and blighted prospects. In these enclaves, abuse of drugs, alcohol, women, and children is epidemic. Violence, black-on-black crime, and homelessness rates are appalling. Economic inequality has widened. Our daily interactions have coarsened. Some conservatives blame these failures on government policies (e.g., ghettoized public housing projects and family-corroding welfare programs), but most of them have deeper sources in social breakdowns and individual frailties. Fortunately, these civil society dysfunctions are relatively isolated and do not directly impair most Americans’ quality of life.
Our national politics, in contrast, fails in its most basic mission – to bind a diverse, energetic, conflictual country together. Polarization, contempt for compromise, savagery toward opponents, congressional paralysis, gerrymandered districts, policy gridlock, and other pathologies are at levels unseen for generations. Congress periodically threatens to shut down the government and is about to enact the most important tax legislation since 1986, yet the Republican majority is ignoring or discrediting Congress’s own scorekeeper on the bill, which few of them have likely read. The party system is broken, with campaign finance, a major party function, migrating to unaccountable outsiders (partly due to past reforms). No healthy, responsible party would have nominated President Trump, who routinely flouts rectitude, dignity, and prudence and is the most unfit occupant of the office in our history. Nor would a healthy, responsible party use its firm grip on congressional power to enable his democracy-imperiling actions. With vital issues crowding the nation’s agenda, this power has accomplished little of sound and fair policy (I include you, tax bill!). With eight years to come up with a palatable alternative to Obamacare (which actually borrowed some Republican ideas), the GOP has failed to come up with one. And however one views the merits of Trump’s vast deregulatory edicts, many are of doubtful legality and will be tied up in courts for years.
These political failures are by no means confined to Republican lawmakers. The Democrats, in power for most of the last 25 years, bear much responsibility for enacting far-reaching policies without bipartisan support and for issuing important regulations without legally-required public processes, further eroding public confidence in our political system. Americans have always been politically divided, going back to the bitter conflict over the Jay Treaty in George Washington’s second term. (The “era of good feelings” over which James Monroe presided was brief, ushering in the “Jacksonian revolution” which sharply divided the country, destroyed the first party system, and ultimately led to the Civil War). Today, our political maladies may be worsening, as many young Americans are not only dangerously ignorant of our history but claim to be deeply disaffected ― not just from Washington but also from some of our most basic constitutional values, such as non-violent tolerance for speech that offends them. Many say that they will not even bother to vote.
This returns us to the initial question: Why does our civil society largely prosper while both of our national parties are not meeting their most basic political responsibilities? (Our state and local parties are too diverse to be compared). I devoted a recent book to this question, but the short answer is this: the government operates under a distinct set of incentives and constraints which – this is the key point ― seem almost designed for failure. The political arts are essential, but the constitutionally-granted power to compel opponents’ compliance encourages over-reaching and abuse of this power. This power naturally attracts and magnifies people’s most corrupting, aggrandizing, and irresponsible tendencies. In principle and mostly in practice, this system favors majority voters. But it also tends to favor already-powerful interests whose concentration enables them to organize more effectively and cheaply than larger groups that lack these organization advantages and whose votes are therefore harder to mobilize. (Strong ideological commitments can sometimes overcome these organizational obstacles, as environmental groups often do).
Government (and voters) rely upon information that is often stale and distorted by political interests, which helps explain the near-immortality of so many clearly ineffective programs. (A recent example is the perverse biofuels subsidy that even Trump has been unable to kill). Power-wielding politicians are constrained only by the formal checks and balances (Madison called them “parchment barriers”), which they constantly strive to undermine. Politicians work within a distinct moral code that makes sense to them ― partly because unlike civil society actors, they do not bear personally the costs of their failures. Practices like partisan gerrymandering and self-dealing are routine, yet strike ordinary people as deeply wrong. At the same time, voters are plagued by ignorance and indifference (some of it rational) and persistent biases (cognitive and otherwise).
Because civil society is not coercive in any conventional sense, it is driven largely by cooperative, voluntary, and sometimes altruistic incentives – a private, conventional morality practiced by most citizens most of the time. This morality is shaped by widely-shared norms and is normally constrained by competition. Businesses must satisfy their customers or fail. Non-profits must compete for donors. Families and neighborhoods typically naturally nourish their own even amid daunting challenges. To prosper, these groups must be resourceful and savvy. Social penalties for being poorly-informed and passive are severe.
These different incentives, constraints, and moralities help explain why our private lives are usually so much more satisfying and hopeful than our politics. And as government’s size, deficits, and regulatory reach expand, this gap is only growing. Perhaps we are fortunate that government’s role in the U.S. is still limited relative to elsewhere: its share of GDP (14.4 percent) is much smaller than in, say, France (23.7 percent).
For the vast majority of our people, civil society flourishes – often in spite of our government. But the performance gap should trouble all of us, for the remedies must ultimately be political.