Francis Fukuyama defends liberal democracy in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, noting that despite the rise of authoritarian China and the resurgence of nationalist Russia, democracy and free markets are still winning.
“When observing broad historical trends, it is important not to get carried away by short-term developments,” he advises.
It is a prescription Fukuyama ought to obey himself, especially when observing American politics.
While correct in the main in his assessment of historical trends, Fukuyama worries that the U.S. has become a dysfunctional “vetocracy.” He laments that Americans stress “constraint of authority” rather than “effective government,” and complains: “Congress hasn’t passed a budget, according to its own rules, in several years, and last fall, the GOP shut down the entire government because it couldn’t agree on paying for past debts.”
Fukuyaka notably exempts Democrats from blame, though the fact that Congress has not passed a budget in years is almost entirely due to the reticence of the Democrat-controlled Senate. It is important to note that the government shutdown of 2013 was not about “paying for past debts” but about paying for a brand-new entitlement called Obamacare–an illiberal state intrusion of the sort that even Europe is now abandoning.
Indeed, if American government is dysfunctional, it is because the policy elite are determined to resist the very principles that Fukuyama insists are essential. They want to re-introduce socialist modes of economic planning, against the lessons of recent history, and overriding the constitutional procedures that provide the only real guarantee that the will of the individual, as expressed in free elections, finds meaning in our democratic system.
It is true that Capitol Hill is divided between two opposition movements–at least for now. The Democrat-held Senate came to power on the back of the anti-war movement of 2006. The Republican-controlled House owes its ethos to the Tea Party wave that resisted massive deficit spending. These two movements hold each other in check. Yet what they share in common is a skepticism of federal government power, in one form or another.
It may be that such skepticism is misplaced. The U.S. is an indispensable world power, for example, and the more restrained foreign policy favored by anti-war Democrats–and some Tea Party Republicans–may weaken America’s ability to defend freedom at home as well as abroad.
Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with a system that translates the general public desire for restrained government into inaction in Washington, D.C.
That is what the system is designed to do.
Oddly, Fukuyama seems to presume that a government that “does something” is preferable to one that does less. One constant in both the 2013 and 1995-6 shutdowns was that the economy continued to grow through both (albeit more slowly, for other reasons, in 2013). A robust private sector that expands freedom and opportunity does not need most of what the federal government actually does.
It is faith in individuals, not faith in government, that we lack as we confront the emergence of new-old rivals. Our politics appear “polarized” only on the surface.
Quietly, the best ideas of either side are adopted and taken out of the arena of debate: Democrats are warming to labor and pension reforms, for example, while the GOP has become more tolerant towards homosexuality.
The problem is not our “vetocracy,” but our illiberal state.