This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Walker Percy’s death, and the eminent philosopher-novelist repays our attention and thought more than ever.
What is required to maintain complex national policies and adjust them to the realities of a changing world—and to do so in a way that produces legitimate policies? However we answer this, is our current institutional matrix up to the task?
My suggestion of the term “decoherence” to organize thinking about these questions implies answers to both of these questions. To the first, periodic legislative attention to policies, intended to produce some degree of coherence, is strictly necessary to produce policies that are workable and legitimate. To the second, I believe our system previously worked to produce policy coherence to a greater degree than it does today, and both the efficacy and the legitimacy of our current policies suffer as a result of our general lurch toward decoherence.
I’m very grateful for sharp responses to my piece by Todd Zywicki and Arthur Wilmarth, Jr., who each offer different ways of answering these two questions. Our differences are real and important, making it worthwhile to draw out the implications for governance.
Zywicki thinks it is foolish to imagine that any configuration of democratic policymaking will tend toward coherence at the national level, and thus rejects the idea that we have gone from “more” to “less” in recent times; for him, national policymaking in an extended republic will ever be a formula for incoherence, plain and simple. “There is no reason to believe that politicians in past eras had any particularly greater concern for coherence than those today,” Zywicki explains, “it was merely that there were fewer opportunities for incoherence to arise in a government of limited and constitutionally-constrained powers. Regulatory incoherence, as opposed to decoherence, is inherent in big government.”
This is a powerful argument—too powerful, in fact, since it rejects the possibility of successful governance at any large scale. But it is easy to think of policy programs of massive scale that have achieved fair degrees of coherence: Social Security, the Manhattan Project, and the interstate highway system are three rather diverse examples that pop into my mind. One might think these policies wise or unwise, socially beneficial or not, but there is really no gainsaying their coherence as policies.
Or take another example: federal air pollution regulation since the 1960s. Responding to widespread demands for federal invention to deal with smog, especially in industrial areas, Congress passed the rather toothless Clean Air Act of 1963. When this proved ineffectual, Congress returned to the issue in 1967 and again, more concertedly, in 1970, when they created the statutory framework of the modern Clean Air Act. Although the Environmental Protection Agency was created alongside the new version of the act, it was not left to its own devices in directing the law’s development. Instead, Congress returned to do some updating in 1977 and then passed (with sizable bipartisan majorities) extensive revisions in 1990 which added some new objectives but also streamlined some of the act’s requirements and introduced market-based mechanisms where they offered more cost-effective ways to achieve regulatory goals. We could certainly argue about how much policy coherence the various versions of the Clean Air Act ever achieved (and of course about the merits of those policies), but it is at least easy enough to observe seeking after coherence by Congress (not to mention the EPA and the courts, who had a great deal to say, as well). And for my part I think they did fairly well in many parts of the statute, especially those which were extensively revised in 1990.
Contrast this with the still-unfolding story of greenhouse gas emission controls—also under the auspices of the Clean Air Act, but only very awkwardly and without any tolerable amount of statutory guidance. This is the fruit of congressional inaction joined with judicial action-forcing and an administration which has enthusiastically taken up that call to action, and which indeed shows very little hesitancy in proposing elaborate systems with no statutory hooks (and then changing them dramatically in between a proposed rule and a final rule). It wouldn’t be fair to say that the administration has no interest in coherence, but given the many encumbrances that the statute creates and their privileging of other priorities (e.g., positioning the country in global negotiations) it is not a high priority. Meanwhile, the majority party in Congress denies that this new set of policies has any legitimacy at all and insists the program must be scrapped forthwith; the minority party determinedly insists that it is imperative to the very future of our planet and thinks the executive branch should be left alone to find its way as best it can, given the unfortunate political climate. Again, where Zywicki applies a philosophy of universal hopelessness when it comes to seeking coherence, I think that things used to be better and now have gotten worse.
Zywicki’s challenge is also about legislators’ motivation: he doubts that they ever care much about coherence. At the risk of sounding naive, I think members of Congress do sometimes make coherence a goal, called by names such as “making commerce work” or “good government” or even just “adapting to changing times.” These aren’t goals that bubble up from the mass electorate, but in my ideal vision of how a legislature functions these kind of considerations should get significant attention in the process of representing affected interests and making some workable compromise from their concerns. So I take Congress’s intermediating function to tend toward coherence when it is functioning properly. But if the legislature adopts the attitude that coherence is simply alien to “big government” (something we surely have), that will serve to justify abdication of their intermediating role; instead, their idea of representation will reduce to simply trumpeting ideas held by some of the public.
A quick reference of Michael Oakeshott’s famous “Rationalism in Politics” is perhaps in order. Some may think that my idea of striving for coherence is just a form of the rationalism that Oakeshott criticizes. If that was right, it would be natural for conservatives to reject a push for coherence as just another variety of the utopian yearning for perfect order. But I don’t think it’s correct. As Justus Myers and I argued in National Affairs, properly understood conservatism is all about striving to sensibly synthesize our institutional and cultural inheritance with new developments. Oakeshott condemns the rationalist for “wanting to begin everything de novo,” with “the past [being] significant to him only as an encumbrance,” and identifies the essence of conservative wisdom as the ability to take lived experience and assimilate it into the social inheritance. There are countless reasons to wonder if the federal government is too far removed from people’s lived experiences to be the appropriate venue for addressing many social concerns. But where we do have federal policies, it is nevertheless important for our policymaking system to digest new experiences and adjust our policies so that they remain coherent in a changed world.
That, in turn, forces us to think about whose experiences our system is attentive to, and whose ends coherent policies serve. This is Wilmarth’s concern as he questions my piece (and my book) from a very different direction than Zywicki: he suggests that if we lack policies coherently serving the public’s interests, it is because we instead do get policies coherently serving the interests of entrenched interests such as Wall Street banks as a result of those institutions having effectively captured our policymaking institutions and turned them to their own purposes. Too much of coherence on behalf of bad ends, rather than decoherence, is what ails us.
I am a “capture” skeptic—not because I doubt that we have many bad policies that serve special interests and disserve the public, but because I insist that it requires substantive argumentation to determine which policies are which, whereas alleging “capture” is usually a way to shut down such argumentation by declaring one side morally unfit to participate in the argument. And so when Wilmarth alleges a “pattern of official largesse for our biggest financial institutions” that culminated in policy responses to the financial crisis that benefitted big banks, I am uneasy. This is not the place to go toe-to-toe on each of the many specific issues he raises, so I will say only that it is not at all self-evident to me that the interests of the broad public and those of large financial institutions were opposed. Nor is it so clear that small banks or home owners were slighted merely because policymakers cared only about large institutions: whereas TARP’s large bank program had all of its loans repaid with interest, its support for small banks often led to losses and its foreclosure relief was designed to incur permanent fiscal expense. From taxpayers’ perspective, that is not a trifling difference. More broadly, I do not find it convincing to think of the banking policies of the 2000s as coherent on behalf of large banks; indeed, I think decoherence had a great deal to do with the onset of the financial crisis, though that is a complicated story.
In support of this position, I’ll refer back to a past forum, on Michael Greve’s pithily named “adversarial corporatism.” Following Greve, our current system does serve the interests of large banks in many ways, but at the same time it is built to harass and prosecute them on a regular basis. The resulting policy landscape has a uniquely twenty-first century American feel to it, which is to say that it is anything but coherent. Indeed, our present system is sufficiently discombobulated to make the coherence of simple above-the-board corporatism (as in Canada’s banking system) a bit tempting.
To close, I’ll return to the (apparently inexplicable) optimism with which I ended my essay. I said that suggestions were welcome about how to arrest the trend toward decoherence, most probably by reviving Congress, and since I wrote there have been a bevy of excellent pieces answering that call. First was Chris DeMuth’s lead essay here last month, which did a far better job than I could explaining how and why Congress has largely surrendered to the executive its ability to steer policy in coherent directions and laid out some ideas about how it could regain relevance, especially in the budgetary and regulatory realms. Lee Drutman’s generous response to my piece links back to his and Steve Teles’ reform program for congressional staff. And the new issue of National Affairs offers Tevi Troy’s program for resuscitating congressional hearings as drivers of better policymaking and Kevin Kosar’s broad agenda for congressional revival. With a bit of luck, these varied efforts will cohere into a movement capable of stemming the tide of decoherence.