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Is American Government in Decay?

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Is American Government in Decay?

Francis Fukuyama and other critics misinterpret democratic messiness as existential crisis. Summer 2015
Photo by GDA/El Tiempo/Colombia/AP Photo
For Fukuyama, self-dealing by elites and institutional rigidity threaten to transform America into a “vetocracy,” where needed reforms cannot be achieved.

The ink was barely dry on the new Constitution, and Benjamin Franklin had just left his fellow Framers behind in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, when a woman accosted him on the street and asked, “What type of government have you delegates given us?”

“A republic, madam,” Franklin purportedly answered, “if you can keep it.”

This familiar tale makes a simple point: Franklin and his collaborators had succeeded in framing the new republic. To the extent that their creation might someday prove unsuccessful, it would be not their fault but rather the fault of the people. But does this story give Franklin and his fellow Framers too much credit—and the people too little? Francis Fukuyama thinks so. That’s the ultimate warning of his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of his landmark two-part examination of political order.

The first part, The Origins of Political Order (2011), traced the history of political development from its pre-political origins in the state of nature—not Hobbes’s or Locke’s theoretical constructs but, quite literally, chimpanzees—to the late-eighteenth century’s American and French Revolutions. (See “The Dawn of Politics,” Spring 2011.) Looking not only to familiar Western sources of republican government but also to Chinese bureaucracy and Egypt’s Mamluk warrior class, among other Eastern contributions to modern state-building, Fukuyama examined three fundamental political institutions—the state, the rule of law, and notions of accountability—and how societies develop them over time.

But now, in Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama meditates on how things fall apart. Though “the American Revolution institutionalized democracy and the principle of democracy,” the American state two centuries later “is not working well, and its problems may be related to the fact that it is too institutionalized.” Decay’s closing chapters argue that the structure of American government, its checks and balances, has become a “vetocracy,” providing too many opportunities for special interests to prevent the government from enacting necessary and popular reforms.

“Institutions are created to meet certain needs of society, such as making war, dealing with economic conflicts, and regulating social behavior,” Fukuyama writes. “But as recurring patterns of behavior, they can also grow rigid and fail to adapt when the circumstances that brought them into being in the first place themselves change.” Worse still, such rigidity can be exacerbated by the elite classes’ misappropriation of state power for their own primary benefit. Those two dreaded forces—rigidity and elite self-dealing—are the sources of political “decay,” Fukuyama’s ultimate focus.

His criticisms are harsh and substantive. Yet three significant problems underlie his analysis, weakening its force. While he calls for greater “autonomy” in federal agencies, his notions of “autonomy” and “expertise” seem flatly at odds with nearly a century’s worth of experience with the structure of federal agencies. More fundamentally, his narrow view of the Founding Fathers’ objectives prevents him from grappling seriously with the actual constitutional mechanisms that they created into law. And his disparagement of modern political stalemates manages to oversimplify, to the point of caricature, the policy debates that he cites as evidence of governmental decay.

Fukuyama’s project is itself an extension of the work of his mentor, the late Samuel Huntington. As Fukuyama notes in the two books and elsewhere, he was invited several years ago to write a new foreword for Huntington’s classic work on development, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). That book took direct aim at “modernization theory,” the then-conventional wisdom among political scientists that economic modernization almost certainly leads to cultural and political modernization. According to Fukuyama’s foreword, Huntington showed that “political decay was at least as likely as political development” and that “the good things of modernity often operated at cross-purposes.” Without political order, “neither economic nor social development could proceed successfully.” But as compelling as Huntington’s thesis had been, the passage of time revealed ways in which the argument could now be improved—“not so much amended as extended,” Fukuyama’s foreword suggested. The result, nearly a decade later, is Fukuyama’s magnum opus.

Fukuyama’s analysis centers on political “institutions”—meaning, in Huntington’s terms, “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior.” His three key political institutions are the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. Fukuyama’s definition of “the state” is the one offered by Max Weber, the German sociologist, in 1919: “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The first modern state was China, which moved beyond familial- or tribal-based organizations nearly two millennia before European states did. The “rule of law” is governance by “rules that are binding even on the most politically powerful actors in a given society,” a system rooted in religion, and thus “most deeply institutionalized in Western Europe, due to the role of the Roman Catholic church.” As for democratic or political “accountability,” this isn’t necessarily democracy per se—the American and English states, Fukuyama notes, were accountable long before they were democratic in a modern sense—but the fact that “rulers believe that they are responsible to the people they govern and put the people’s interests above their own.”

In Origins, Fukuyama did not place the United States at the pinnacle of his argument; rather, his theme was “the problem of 'getting to Denmark.'” He identified that country as a stand-in for the ideal Western-style nation that has successfully developed “good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.”

That Fukuyama’s first volume tended toward Danish exceptionalism more than American exceptionalism was no great surprise to his dedicated readers, who know that he has long bristled at the accusation that his work, beginning famously with the 1989 essay “The End of History?” in The National Interest, was jingoistic. Writing in a new 2006 afterword to the book that grew out of that essay, The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama asserted that “anyone familiar with [Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre] Kojève and the intellectual origins of his version of the end of history would understand that the European Union is a much fuller real-world embodiment of the concept than is the contemporary United States.” Fukuyama said then that he did not actually prefer European democracy to the American version—to the contrary, he wrote, “I prefer the American version in some ways over the European one,” though this was “more a matter of pragmatic observation and taste than a matter of principle.”

It’s hard to believe, reading his new book, that Fukuyama’s observations and tastes still lead him to prefer American democracy. Political Order and Political Decay culminates with a tough indictment of American government for failing to achieve what the people—or, at least, Fukuyama—demand of it.

Tracing the arc of history after the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions, Fukuyama pushes back against the common presumption that “the central problem of contemporary politics is how to constrain powerful, overweening or indeed, tyrannical governments.” For sometimes the problem is not too much government, Fukuyama argues, but too little. Accountability and the rule of law must limit the state, “but before governments can be constrained, they have to generate the power to actually do things. States, in other words, have to be able to govern.” And this requires, first, “the establishment of a centralized executive and a bureaucracy.”

Drawing on examples such as India and Prussia, Fukuyama observes that the key difference between successful and unsuccessful political development is “the sequence by which different countries reformed their bureaucracies relative to the moment they opened up their political systems to wider democratic contestation.” Strong authoritarian bureaucracies could survive and adapt to broader democracy, he argues, but nations without strong bureaucracies needed to overcome the inertia of “clientistic” politics before reforming corruption in public administration. He concedes, however, that bureaucratic autonomy is a good that comes at obvious cost—“it is also possible to have too much of a good thing.”

The early American republic overcame an initial lack of strong bureaucracy, he suggests, but only with great difficulty. We inherited England’s traditional rule of law, and some degree of political accountability, but no strong central state. Thus, the government was initially dominated by an elite class, a “Government by Gentlemen,” unafraid to use patronage to reward its allies. America became, in the period between Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the Civil War and again after the war, a “state of courts and parties.” This is not to say that the nation “was badly governed” from the outset but only that it lacked the capacity to adapt and grow to meet the needs of subsequent times. Indeed, Fukuyama urges, the United States still has not fully evolved:

“[T]o the present day,” it “has never succeeded in establishing the kind of high-quality state that exists in certain other rich democracies.”

But the American experience did produce at least one agency that, for a time, met Fukuyama’s standard of autonomy and excellence: the U.S Forest Service. Under the able leadership of Gifford Pinchot, in the early twentieth century, the agency was “the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era.” Established with a specific ethos and lodged within a modernizing Agriculture Department, the Forest Service was “responsive to interest groups but not owned by them . . . not too easily swayed by the short-term vagaries of democratic public opinion, but rather look[ing] to long-term public interest.”

Fukuyama’s counterexample is the Interstate Commerce Commission, the multimember entity tasked with regulating railroads, which was too susceptible to “shifting political currents in Congress and the White House” and which lacked powers equal to its regulatory task, ultimately rendering the agency “an obstacle to the modernization of the American transportation system.” (In Fukuyama’s overwhelmingly negative portrait of the ICC, one senses perhaps his mentor’s intellectual influence. As a freshly appointed Harvard professor, Huntington published an article, “The Marasmus of the ICC: The Commission, the Railroads, and the Public Interest,” in which he called for the agency’s outright abolition.)

America’s experience contrasts with nations whose political development began not with the rule of law, or democratic accountability, but a strong state—particularly in Asia, where “state “authority could be taken for granted.” There “the problem was the opposite: how to limit the power of the state through law and representative government.” Surveying such examples, Fukuyama asks how the forces of economic growth, social mobilization, and evolving ideas of legitimacy can lead to the development of democracy, the rule of law, and the state. Given global economic trends—particularly, pressures on the middle class—nations face the challenge of identifying and executing policies that will “help citizens flexibly adjust to the changing conditions of work.” That process “requires state and private institutions that are similarly flexible.” Are Western governments ready for this challenge?

In his final chapters, Fukuyama moves from institutions’ origins to their “decay.” Governments decay when political institutions fail to adapt to new circumstances, or when elites redirect the state’s value to family and friends instead of to the public as a whole. No state is inherently immune to this: political institutions are “universally subject to political decay,” and “democracy itself,” he urges, “can be the source of decay.” So can political stability, when it allows institutions to ossify until they cannot adapt to new societal demands.

And the United States, he argues, is very much in a state of institutional decay—a “decay in the quality of American government,” as Congress and the courts “have usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient.” He does not mean to suggest that American society is in decline—he expressly rejects that suggestion—but that the state, meaning the executive and bureaucracy, is increasingly crippled by “too much law and too much ‘democracy.’ ”

As evidence, Fukuyama points to the major laws most recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The Affordable Care Act is “something of a monstrosity,” due to “all the concessions and side payments that had to be made to interest groups,” resulting in 900 pages of legislation that few, if any, lawmakers actually read in detail. The Dodd-Frank financial-reform act is an overcomplicated morass of legislative micromanagement, enacted at the behest of “interest groups” that thwarted simpler, tougher reforms demanded by the public. Such interest groups, Fukuyama maintains, regularly “undermine bureaucratic autonomy when they persuade their agents in Congress to issue complex and often self-contradictory mandates to agencies, which are then highly constrained in their ability to exercise independent judgment or make commonsense decisions.”

But the fault lies not just with modern politicians and lobbyists but ultimately with the Constitution itself: “[I]ts traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid”—Fukuyama’s “vetocracy.” Alas, constitutional reform is unlikely so long as “Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document.”

In recent years, we have grown all too accustomed to accusations that our government is “broken,” usually in terms of Congress’s failure to enact President Obama’s agenda. But even setting aside liberal partisans, several serious thinkers with conservative inclinations share much of Fukuyama’s structural diagnosis. In The Great Degeneration (2012), historian Niall Ferguson complained that “it is we Westerners who are in the stationary state, while China is growing faster than any other major economy in the world” and that Dodd-Frank was a colossal mistake. Elsewhere, political scientist John DiIulio argues in Bring Back the Bureaucrats (2014) that public administration is in crisis because Congress demands too much of it and yet doesn’t provide it with nearly enough resources to do its job properly. When scholars such as DiIulio, Ferguson, and Fukuyama agree on such a diagnosis, we ought to pay heed.

Despite his thorough and nuanced understanding of world history, however, Fukuyama betrays deeply questionable presumptions regarding the nature of agency structure, the origins and purposes of constitutional checks and balances, and the political context of our present situation.

Fukuyama contends that American agencies would perform better if they were more “autonomous.” But his conception of “autonomy” is peculiar, in that it appears to be the very opposite of “agency independence” as that concept has been understood for over a century. Fukuyama does not acknowledge his disagreement with conventional standards of agency independence, let alone grapple with the long-standing arguments favoring the traditional form of independence that he rejects.

Fukuyama’s “autonomy” is “government that is responsive to interest groups but not owned by them,” comprising agencies “not too easily swayed by the short-term vagaries of democratic public opinion” but pursuing instead the “long-term public interest.” More specifically, his “autonomous” agency is one that is protected against undue influence from Congress, rather than from the president; and the agency is led by a single appointee, rather than by a bipartisan commission. Thus, his ideal example of an “autonomous” agency: the early Forest Service, led by Pinchot, who “created his own mandate” instead of “simply fulfill[ing] a political mandate set by Congress.” His counterexample—the Interstate Commerce Commission—“in some sense could never become autonomous” because it “was structured as a commission with balanced representation of the two political parties” and tasked by statutes with achieving a variety of general goals.

But that description of agency “autonomy,” along with the policy ramifications of those agency structures, is strikingly different from the idea of agency “independence” as commonly conceived in American law. Since shortly before the New Deal, the ideal “independent” agencies have been multimember commissions, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. These bodies, insulated from direct presidential control, are composed of bipartisan members who effectively check and balance one another. By contrast, “executive agencies” such as the EPA or the Department of Health and Human Services are led by appointees serving at the pleasure of the president and thus are seen as more susceptible to politicization, not less.

This distinction was stated best by James Landis, a prominent New Dealer, dean of the Harvard Law School, and founding father of the regulatory paradigm that has prevailed for eight decades. In The Administrative Process (1938), his seminal lectures on regulatory structure, he defended the Interstate Commerce Commission and other “independent” commissions as paragons of apolitical expertise and deliberation:

The reasons for favoring this seem simple enough—a desire to have the fashioning of industrial policy removed to a degree from political influence. At the same time, there seems to have been a hope that the independent agency would make for more professionalism than that which characterized the normal executive department [i.e., single-headed agencies accountable to the president rather than to Congress]. Policies would thus be more permanent and could be fashioned with greater foresight than might attend their shaping under conditions where the dominance of executive power was pronounced.

This remains the conventional wisdom. As Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a thoughtful scholar of administrative law and policy, rendered the argument in a 2010 opinion, multimember “independent” commissions retain their “constitutional legitimacy” from “the need for technical expertise,” something thought to be less prevalent in the president’s energetic executive agencies. Conservatives looking to the executive branch for unpoliticized “expertise” likely won’t see it in, say, the Obama State Department’s review of the Keystone XL pipeline; similarly, liberals probably wouldn’t say that expertise trumped politics in the last Bush Environmental Protection Agency. In both administrations, conservatives and liberals alike would be on firmer ground seeking autonomy and expertise in the independent, multimember Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

None of this is to say that pressure from Congress cannot undermine an agency’s work, too. A burgeoning body of scholarship now focuses on the value of also insulating agencies from congressional power. But Fukuyama’s failure at least to grapple with defenses of the independent commission structure as a protector of regulatory expertise and bulwark against the dangers of presidential politicking is disappointing. If, as he urges, “well-functioning governance systems” require “a great deal of deliberation” within the agencies, he is more likely to find that deliberation within a multimember commission, led by members with differing viewpoints, than within an agency directed by a single, politically engaged administrator.

Indeed, while Fukuyama’s intended focus is on institutions per se, his single-minded focus on the early-twentieth-century Forest Service as the archetype of good bureaucratic governance suggests that his analysis is driven less by his assessment of the service’s institutional structure than by his appreciation of its particular leader and mission. He effectively admits as much, when he notes that “it is impossible to talk about the Forest Service without reference to Gifford Pinchot’s background and character.”

That is risky business, for not every agency will be led by a Gifford Pinchot. As James Q. Wilson warns in Bureaucracy (1989), “more often the president . . . has no clear idea of what policy his appointee will pursue. Agency executives are selected in order to serve the political needs of the president, and these may or may not involve policy considerations.” Louis Jaffe, a key scholar of the modern administrative state, put the point more bluntly in a 1961 essay: “[E]xhortation to appoint ‘good men’ sounds utopian and futile. . . . Is not the lesson of history that good men are in short supply and that we cannot rely on good intentions to get things well done? Surely we should proceed on the assumption that institutions must be designed to get along with the men whom they are likely to attract. We must not rely on good men to overcome obvious institutional defects.”

And Fukuyama’s Pinchot is a bit of an idealization. As DiIulio points out in Washington Monthly, Fukuyama’s “gush[ing]” portrait of Pinchot glosses over a much more complicated picture, understating the extent to which Pinchot politicized his office; overstating the extent to which the Forest Service truly was committed to a single policy objective; and overlooking the extent to which Pinchot’s ultimate dismissal owed in no small part to his own excesses. Even Teddy Roosevelt, Pinchot’s staunchest proponent, saw clearly his flaws: “Gifford Pinchot is a dear, but he is a fanatic, with an element of hardness and narrowness in his temperament, and an extremist.”

Ultimately, a variety of personality types can staff agencies. James Q. Wilson categorized them as “careerists,” “politicians,” and “professionals,” observing how each type’s differing incentives could produce different policy outcomes. One might add to Wilson’s list “ideologues,” who srotate in and out of government and the nonprofit sector, aggressively pursuing policies while in office and then returning to a nonprofit, think-tank, or university post while out of office. They arrive in office focused on enacting the regulatory programs for which they had previously advocated in their academic or think-tank perches, only now able to leverage the regulatory bureaucracy and the Justice Department to codify and defend those policies; such agency leadership can be credited with much of the Obama administration’s regulatory enactments on health care, the environment, and consumer financial regulation. But taxonomies aside, it is precisely because we can’t count on the “right” leader to arise at the right moment that we must judge regulatory institutions in terms of their structures, not in terms of the types of leaders we hope might run them.

Efficiency and Democracy

Fukuyama is not alone in identifying decadent trends in the evolution of modern democratic governance. Between the publication of Fukuyama’s first and second volumes, The Economist’s John Micklethwait (now heading Bloomberg News) and Adrian Wooldridge published The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Invent the State (2014). They also take a deep dive into history and ultimately offer a prescription similar to Fukuyama’s: namely, that Western nations should learn from the experiences of Asian bureaucracies and reform themselves into leaner, more effective governments. “Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism a couple of decades ago, it is now trying to remaster the art of government,” they write. “The main difference is that the Chinese believe that nowadays there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism.” The effect of these efforts will be felt not merely in China, or even in broader Asia, but worldwide. “For the state is about to change. . . . This Fourth Revolution in government will change the world.”

Micklethwait and Wooldridge write of a “fourth” revolution because it follows in the steps of three—maybe “three and a half”—previous revolutions. The first was the establishment of the modern nation-state, responsible first and foremost for providing law and
order. The second was the capitalist state of Victorian England, in which government “shrank in size even as it addressed the problems of a rapidly industrializing society,” before moving leftward in search of ever more avenues for intervention. The third revolution was the twentieth-century welfare state, in both England and America.

Finally, after Reaganite and Thatcherite conservatism (only a “half” revolution because it was short-lived and left in its wake not smaller governments but bigger ones), comes Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s fourth revolution: an energetic state that, challenged or inspired by advances in Singapore and China, commits itself to delivering truly necessary government services both efficiently and effectively, while paring back unnecessary or counterproductive services. At stake is nothing less than the West’s political survival, Micklethwait and Wooldridge insist. If the West fails to reduce the size of the nanny state, the result may be worse than mere stasis: Western governments’ complacency may allow “their democracies to decay.”

Like Fukuyama, Micklethwait and Wooldridge might be selling Western institutions short. True, advances in management and technology might help government become more efficient in delivering what the people want—but that presupposes that it knows what the people actually do want. And since structural checks and balances require that democratic governments digest the people’s varying, and often conflicting, demands, even the most “efficient” government designs will never be as efficient as some desire.

Fukuyama’s superficial treatment of American constitutional structure is another problem. Fukuyama argues throughout Political Order and Political Decay that the Constitution’s system of checks and balances is itself a significant cause of decay, too often “mak[ing] large changes in public policy very difficult and time-consuming” and thus illustrating the “inherent tension between democracy and what we now call ‘good governance.’ ”

Checks and balances do restrain the pace of policymaking, of course, but Fukuyama mistakenly suggests that this reflects the Founding Fathers’ “antistatist tendency,” rather than their purposeful balance of both energy and deliberation in government. His mistake becomes clear when he asserts that “the only Founding Father who showed an interest in strong and capable government was Alexander Hamilton, who laid out the case for ‘energy in the executive’ in Federalist Nos. 70–77.” Hamilton was hardly alone. George Washington is an obvious example: in the pre-constitutional era and at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Washington was known for “his consistent support for a strong, independent, and energetic executive,” according to historian Glenn A. Phelps’s account of Washington’s constitutionalism. In a new book, The Return of George Washington, Edward J. Larson illustrates Washington’s view of government in the days leading up to the Constitutional Convention. Writing to James Madison, Washington urged that Shays’ Rebellion proved that the nation needed “a liberal, and energetic Constitution.”

Other examples abound. Even in the Declaration of Independence, the epitome of liberty-mindedness, Jefferson, Adams, Hancock, and others criticized not just King George III’s excessive governance but also his refusal to govern: “He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. . . . He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

But of all the examples that Fukuyama overlooks, the most important is Madison. The Father of the Constitution and primary proponent of checks and balances, he emphasized the need for energetic government no less than Hamilton did. “Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger,” he wrote in Federalist 37, “and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws which enter into the very definition of good government.” He added, “energy in government requires not only a certain duration of power, but the execution of it by a single hand.” Thus, as Greg Weiner explains elegantly in Madison’s Metronome (2012), the Constitution’s checks and balances must be understood not simply as an impediment to energetic or majoritarian government but also as a framework for ensuring that the government’s energy derive from reason more than from passion.

On this point, too, James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy is instructive, as it speaks directly to those who, like Fukuyama, are keen to contrast America’s and Europe’s systems: “Here, the separation of powers insures, if not causes, clumsy and adversarial regulation; there the unification of powers permits, if not causes, smooth and consensual regulation. I am not convinced that the choice is that simple, however. . . . The balance sheet on both sides of the ledger would contain many more entries than those that derive from a discussion of public administration. But even confining our attention to administration, there is more to be said for the American system than many of its critics admit.”

In the final analysis, Fukuyama might strike a different balance between governmental energy and restraint. But the Constitution’s structural embrace of both energy and restraint deserves a more generous explication than he grants.

Fukuyama’s impatience with checks and balances presages the third problem with his argument: his exasperation with the modern political scene more broadly. Throughout his “decay” narrative, his discussion of policies thwarted by our political system sweeps aside immensely difficult and controversial policy debates.

The starkest example is his treatment of the Dodd-Frank Act. Even those of us who share his antipathy toward the act’s convoluted regulation of “systemically important” financial institutions must pause at the confidence with which he asserts that the better solution would have been for the government “simply” to “brea[k] up the big banks” or subject them to “stringent capital requirements.” Whether one supports those policies or not, it is a stretch to suggest that either policy would be “simple.” Would he break up the banks horizontally (disaggregating each bank’s departments) or vertically (creating from each multifaceted bank a set of smaller yet equally multifaceted banks)? Even the establishment of new capital requirements isn’t obviously “simple,” when one considers the complex judgments inherent in establishing how each class of capital should be risk-weighted.

Fukuyama contrasts these parts of Dodd-Frank with the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act, which restricted banks’ risk-taking and was “written on a few sheets of paper.” But a statute’s brevity doesn’t always lend itself to easy administration. The Dodd-Frank Act’s provision limiting banks’ risk-taking, the “Volcker Rule,” is itself written on only a few sheets of paper. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—the Volcker Rule’s legislative simplicity, regulators’ efforts to translate the legislation into administrable regulations proved exceedingly difficult: a three-year process culminating in nearly 1,000 pages of rule-making. This isn’t to say that these legislative or administrative challenges are insurmountable but only that they’re far from simple; and if they are not so simple, the government’s failure to adopt them becomes less obviously a symptom of “decay” than a matter of reasonable policy disagreement.

Similarly, when Fukuyama asserts, as he does in his first volume, that “everyone agrees on the necessity of addressing long-term fiscal issues,” he papers over deep, fundamental disputes over which specific policies are needed. No matter how much citizens or legislators agree in the abstract that some problem needs fixing, it takes time for legislators and regulators to debate and settle upon specific policies to fix them. Indeed, when legislators sidestep such disagreements and hastily enact broadly worded legislation, the result is typically the very mix of numerous and often conflicting agency mandates that Fukuyama decries throughout Political Order and Political Decay.

Fukuyama’s skewed view of modern politics and constitutional structure would be of less concern if he limited his analysis to regulatory issues that are narrow in scope and limited in impact—say, the prices that pipelines can charge to ship natural gas or the metrics that manufacturers must apply in ascertaining how much of a particular pollutant a smokestack is emitting. But Fukuyama is focused on high-profile, high-impact policies for which the public is allegedly demanding significant reforms: financial policy, health-care policy, energy and environmental policy, and so on. It is for these particular issues that constitutional checks and balances ought to be most significant: to create governmental “energy” for reform, yes, but also to ensure that that energy is put into service of reforms that the public really does demand—and in reason, no less than in passion.

Accordingly, the Constitution’s checks and balances exist precisely to help the government digest the various demands that the public places upon it, to resolve conflicts among the public’s competing demands, and to translate those resulting policies into actual legislative enactments—a process that takes time but ultimately vindicates majoritarian government in the long (yet not too long) run. As Madison explained in Federalist 10, while the system guards against “the diseases most incident to republican government,” it provides “a republican remedy” to those ills. Even if decay is to be measured, as Fukuyama suggests, in terms of government’s ability “to provide the substance of what people want from government,” it must be judged in terms of a reasonable period of time and not in the snapshot of a relatively fleeting political moment—whether the last several years, which are Fukuyama’s primary focus in Political Order and Political Decay, or even the last few decades.

Brief snapshots in time can lead analysts to hasty conclusions that look preposterous in hindsight: in the 1980s, American industrial policy seemed destined to lose out to Japan; in 1919, Lincoln Steffens looked at Soviet agricultural and industrial policy and said, “I have seen the future, and it works.” More recently, China’s magnitude on the global stage has led Thomas Friedman to pine openly for “one-party autocracy,” led by “a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today.” One wonders how that assessment, and similar ones (see sidebar), will fare just a decade or two from now.

The great irony in all this is that Fukuyama’s criticism of the Framers resembles the criticism that he himself has faced since penning The End of History and the Last Man. Time and again, critics who too often skipped his actual argument suggested that transient events disproved his thesis. But that was not his argument; his argument, as he emphasized in America at the Crossroads (2006), was that “democracy in my view is likely to expand universally in the long run.” Madison and his colleagues might offer a similar response to Fukuyama’s criticism.

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