Fukuyama’s Mandarins

Francis Fukuyama has a lengthy piece in Foreign Affairs this month called “America in Decay.” His diagnosis is that our government has too many checks and balances, too much diffusion of power, to get things done. This is a fashionable diagnosis, now that China is on the rise. Everyone wishes we had a decisive leader and a competent bureaucracy.

The explosion of interest groups and lobbying in Washington has been astonishing, with the number of firms with registered lobbyists rising from 175 in 1971 to … 13,700 lobbyists spending about $3.5 billion by 2009.

Fukuyama adds value to the discussion in two ways. He tries to prove his thesis from first principles, without aping China and Singapore, and he tries to show what changed in America to make a good system go bad. We write “tries,” here, because the argument has some inconsistencies, and his key recommendation is unpersuasive.

Fukuyama calls for a large, powerful, bureaucracy answerable only to the president. This would be a more or less permanent caste of well educated, professional administrators. Mercifully, he does not call them “mandarins.” You have to give him credit for proposing a solution which is inimical to American history.

Fukuyama provides good examples of overregulation, regulatory capture, and duplication of effort. He calls for a more professional bureaucracy, but it is not clear how handing control to the executive will accomplish this. This is where his argument leaves logic and turns to wishful thinking. There is no institutional fix that will magically make our bureaucracy competent.

There is also no guarantee that Fukuyama’s mandarins will work selflessly in the public interest. Look at land grabs in China, among other examples of pervasive corruption. Power corrupts, in proportion to scale, and America is already far down this road.

The American system of checks and balances compares unfavorably with parliamentary systems when it comes to the ability to balance the need for strong state action with law and accountability.

Fukuyama’s argument grows weaker as he casts about the globe for precedents. In America, he wants the bureaucracy to serve the executive branch, but in Europe he’s happy with it reporting to parliament. He gives a nice survey of parliamentary systems, but he overlooks a fruitful line of inquiry – what, exactly, makes European legislatures more worthy than ours?

We find the first clue when he moves from European states to the European Union. This is the unit of analysis comparable to our federal government, and it has the same problems. Americans generally feel they have some say in their state government, while Washington is a far off dictator – roughly how Europeans feel about Brussels.

Fukuyama begins with a good diagnosis of how Congress was made ineffective by judicialization, polarization, and special interests. This is the best part of the paper. He does an excellent root cause analysis of this problem, and then leaves it unsolved.

Fukuyama proposes greater reliance on the bureaucracy, despite acknowledging its failings, and more power to the executive. A simpler solution would be to streamline the federal bureaucracy and devolve power to the states.

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