Beyond “Kludgeocracy”

Two years ago, in an article entitled “Kludgeocracy in America,” a political science professor from Johns Hopkins named Steven Teles suggested that:

In recent decades, American politics has been dominated, at least rhetorically, by a battle over the size of government. But that is not what the next few decades of our politics will be about. With the frontiers of the state roughly fixed, the issues that will define our major debates will concern the complexity of government, rather than its sheer scope.

With that complexity has also come incoherence….

Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge…. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics — liberalism or conservatism, big government or small — we have no name for the dispute between complexity and simplicity in government, which cuts across those more familiar ideological divisions. For lack of a better alternative, the problem of complexity might best be termed the challenge of “kludgeocracy.” …

The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept. …

America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.

While Teles focused on complexity and incoherence, and treated them as evils in themselves, he also noted that they facilitated other evils as well:

The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. 

Teles returns to this aspect of the problem in a more recent article entitled “The Sourge of Upward Redistribution,” and explains why it is one that conservatives in particular should want to address:

Although they often strive to avoid it, conservatives have every reason to admit that exploding inequality at the top of the income scale is a major problem…. To accept this is not to indict market capitalism. Much of the tension between equality and economic dynamism dissolves when we focus on inequality generated by public policies that distort market allocations of resources in favor of the wealthy…. These … are large and growing, produced by inherent flaws in democratic governance that facilitate the use of the state to enrich the already advantaged. If high-end inequality is not diminished by removing the ways the wealthy use the state to extract resources from the rest of society, the inequalities that conservatives believe are just?—?those that flow from innovation and hard work?—?will be in danger. In short, inequality will become a threat to free exchange itself.

Read the whole thing!

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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