Fukuyama’s Vetocracy

There was a comedian- and for the second or third time here, I’m referencing a comedian whose name and set I don’t recall- anyway, there was a comedian who had a piece about how funny it is that we as Americans are always all about exporting democracy, but it never happens to be our own flavor of democracy that we even pretend to export.

This was my favorite Moldbuggism, back when I was digging into his work.

My favorite analogy for official authority is the stellar cycle. If the authority of government is the temperature of the star, and the size of government is the size of the star, Washington is easily identifiable as a red giant, like Betelgeuse—enormous and cool.

For former libertarians, such as myself, this inverse relationship is critical. The paradox is that weakening government makes it larger. At least, to a libertarian, this seems like a paradox. Once it seems quite natural, you may no longer be a libertarian.

As I noted when I first encountered this analogy:

Moldbug distrusts our sacred “separation of powers” as a fallacious principle. “The division of authority is simply the destruction of order.” Dividing powers, though, tends to create more overall power, and the branches of distinct powers will try (naturally) to kill each other (“and when they work together it’s as partners in crime,” Moldbug notes). Democracy portends to cut power up but instead it puts power in the hands of those who can form groups, most likely around unsophisticated ideas that can appeal to many.

Aside from the reasons Moldbug brings up, there is a problem that I cited regarding kludgeocracy: the American system’s supposed structural libertarian bias creates many gatekeepers in order to limit government action. These gatekeepers, though, can be paid off by having their interests looked after, and so each gatekeeper becomes a toll for any government action. Our system is devised to turn even simple laws into unstable, complex concoctions.

This week, Francis Fukuyama released an article on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.

The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.

Meanwhile, interest groups, having lost their pre-Pendleton Act ability to directly corrupt legislatures through bribery and the feeding of clientelistic machines, have found new, perfectly legal means of capturing and controlling legislators. These interest groups distort both taxes and spending, and raise overall deficit levels through their ability to manipulate the budget in their favor. They use the courts sometimes to achieve this and other rentier advantages, but they also undermine the quality of public administration through the multiple and often contradictory mandates they induce Congress to support—and a relatively weak Executive Branch is usually in a poor position to stop them.

All of this has led to a crisis of representation. Ordinary people feel that their supposedly democratic government no longer reflects their interests but instead caters to those of a variety of shadowy elites. What is peculiar about this phenomenon is that this crisis in representativeness has occurred in large part because of reforms designed to make the system more democratic. Indeed, both phenomena—the judicialization of administration and the spread of interest-group influence—tend to undermine trust in government, which tends to perpetuate and feed on itself. Distrust of executive agencies leads demands for more legal checks on administration, which further reduces the quality and effectiveness of government by reducing bureaucratic autonomy. It may seem paradoxical, but reduced bureaucratic autonomy is what in turn leads to rigid, rule-bound, un-innovative and incoherent government. Ordinary people may blame bureaucrats for these problems (as if bureaucrats enjoy working under a host of detailed rules, court orders, earmarks and complex, underfunded mandates coming from courts and legislators over which they have no control). But they are mistaken to do so; the problem with American government is less an unaccountable bureaucracy than an overall system that allocates what should properly be administrative powers to courts and political parties.

In short, the problems of American government flow from a structural imbalance between the strength and competence of the state, on the one hand, and the institutions that were originally designed to constrain the state, on the other. There is too much law and too much “democracy”, in the form of legislative intervention, relative to American state capacity. […]


The solution to this problem is not necessarily the one advocated by many conservatives and libertarians, which is to simply eliminate regulation and close down bureaucracies. The ends government is serving, such as ensuring civil rights and environmental protection, are often important ones that private markets will not satisfy if left to their own devices. Conservatives often fail to see that it is the very distrust of government that leads the American system into a courts-based approach to regulation that is far less efficient than that found in democracies with stronger executive branches. But American progressives and liberals have been complicit in creating this system as well. They distrusted the bureaucracies that had produced segregated school systems in the South, or had been captured by big business interests, so they were happy to inject unelected judges into social policymaking when legislators proved insufficiently supportive. Everyone had his reasons, and those reasons have added up to massive dysfunction.


When Congress issues complex and often self-contradictory mandates, agencies are highly constrained in their ability to exercise independent judgment or make common-sense decisions. This undermining of bureaucratic autonomy starts a downward spiral. In the face of bureaucratic ineffectiveness, Congress and the public decry “waste, fraud, and abuse” in government and try to fix the problem by mandating even more detailed and constraining rules, whose final effect is to further drive up costs and reduce quality.

Fukuyama on “Vetocracy”:

The longstanding distrust of the state that has always characterized American politics had led to an unbalanced form of government that undermines the prospects of necessary collective action. It has led to vetocracy.

I mean by vetocracy the process whereby the American system of checks and balances makes collective decision-making based on electoral majorities extremely difficult. To some extent, any system that duplicates authority at multiple levels, giving Federal, state and local authorities jurisdiction over whole domains of public policy, risks creating a situation in which different parts of the government are easily able to block one another. But under conditions of ideological polarization, with the major parties about evenly popular (or unpopular) with voters, the constraints become acute. That is where we now are. The government shutdown and crisis over the debt ceiling that emerged in October 2013 is an example of how a minority position (that of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party) could threaten the ability of the government as a whole to operate. This is why the American political system early in the 21st century has failed to deal with its yawning budgetary problems, among many others.


I’ve been reacting to blog posts a lot lately. I’ll be back on the offensive next week, probably.