Commentary Magazine


Demosclerosis, by Jonathan Rauch

The High-Cholesterol State

Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government.
by Jonathan Rauch.
Times Books. 250 pp. $22.00.

“Demosclerosis,” in Jonathan Rauch’s diagnosis, is “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt.” Ever since World War II, he maintains, powerful underlying social forces have intersected with a structural weakness in modern democratic politics to allow entrenched interests to dominate government. This brief but sweeping book, by a contributing editor of the National Journal, is an attempt to describe and analyze those forces. Rauch’s hope is that if we cannot liberate ourselves from their grip, we can at least prevent them from choking off whatever vitality remains in American life.

Taking as his departure point Mancur Olson’s classic study of political economy, The Logic of Collective Action (1965), Rauch argues here that as the share of the American economy under government control has increased, the potential benefits accruing to organizations (and their members) have soared, while the cost of forming and maintaining organizations has declined. The result is that Americans have divided themselves into ever more numerous, large, and powerful groups, each willing to exploit the power of government to advance its own claims on the nation’s resources.

For government, the consequence has been not paralysis but palsy. Government can still act—even in the Reagan and Bush years of divided-government “gridlock,” Congress passed thousands of pages of legislation—but it lacks the ability to look afresh at social problems, to recognize its own failures, and to pursue truly innovative solutions. Government, in Rauch’s telling, has lost its capacity for experimentation—the method of trial and error that is essential to success in every other area of endeavor.

There is ample evidence to suggest that something like this has happened in recent years. Unquestionably there has been an explosive growth in lobbying. In 1976, there were just over 3,000 registered lobbyists; by 1992, the number exceeded 7,500. Virtually irresistible super-lobbies have come to the fore. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which had fewer than a million members in 1965, could by 1990 intimidate lawmakers with a roll of over 30-million members—more than three-quarters of all Social Security recipients.

The organizations that succeed in dipping into the federal trough are not the only ones to grow fat. Rauch points to a vast “parasite economy”—especially the army of lawyers who profit as the government shifts resources around. The number of lawyers per capita in the United States was virtually stable for a century until 1970, and then it doubled; in Washington, D. C, the total number of lawyers quadrupled from 1972 to 1987.

The direct and indirect economic costs of all of this “transfer-seeking” activity are staggeringly high. Quite apart from the expense of “parasite food” for lawyers and lobbyists, a much higher price tag is attached to the subsidies that are “marbled all through the economy and embedded deeply within it. When you go to the store, the labels don’t tell you how much . . . farm subsidies raise the prices of bread and fruit.” Rauch cites estimates of the total annual cost of “transfer-seeking” as somewhere between 5 and 12 percent of the gross national product, or $300 billion to $700 billion.

These are not trivial sums. But Rauch is concerned more with the political than with the economic costs of “demosclerosis.” Here it is important to register that he is no Ross Perot, railing against the “special interests” and arguing that if only we rid ourselves of them, all would be well. On the contrary, he believes that the problem is not “them,” it is “us.” The real threat in “demosclerosis” is the stake that each of us, in Rauch’s telling, has in it.

For this reason, he writes, “Demosclerosis isn’t a problem you solve. It’s a problem you manage.” Because the forces that encourage it are permanent, he suggests trying to limit government’s virtually unbounded authority to transfer resources, the spring from which all parasitism flows. In particular he advocates decentralization—devolving “whole functions to lower levels of government”—and warring against the “parasite economy” through an end to deficit spending (which aggravates the problem by borrowing resources from the future for distribution today). He also favors aggressively cutting subsidies, deregulating the economy, and promoting freer global trade.

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These, of course, are all familiar palliatives, and their eminent good sense leads to the central weakness of Demosclerosis. Putting such sensible remedies in place is going to demand “political leadership,” Rauch says, in a trite observation he reserves for the close of his book. But if good political leadership is essential to the cure of demosclerosis, why has he never mentioned bad political leadership as at least a partial cause of the disease?

Government has reached its current size and level of intrusiveness in American life not because the irresistible laws of political economy inexorably force it to grow, as Rauch maintains, but because ambitious people and political movements have entertained, and executed, ambitious plans for it. It is not impersonal forces that “grow” government, but people—not all people, but some people.

The methods of structural analysis employed by Rauch in Demosclerosis cannot begin to explain, for example, why in the 1960′s so many well-intentioned people thought that poverty could be eliminated in a “war” that entailed a massive expansion of government. Nor is structural analysis much use when we are confronted with a politician who is not well-intentioned—who likes to wield political power first and foremost for its own sake.

In short, if one fails to fix responsibility for political phenomena, genuine political accountability—the passing of judgment on political ideas and on the politicians who champion them—becomes impossible. Evidently, Jonathan Rauch prefers to preside dispassionately above the fray. This is unfortunate, because it prevents Demosclerosis from being better than what it is: an engaging description of the hardened arteries of an aging, high-cholesterol, liberal welfare state.

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