Curing American sclerosis

The following remarks were delivered at The New Criterion’s gala on April 29, 2015 honoring Charles Murray with the third Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society.

BurkeWe are living in a political system that has tied itself in knots. “Cleaning house” in Washington will do nothing to untie those knots. When it comes to an explanation of why government under both Democrats and Republicans has become so pathetically ineffectual across the board, even at simple tasks, a powerful underlying explanation is that American government suffers from an advanced case of institutional sclerosis.

Mancur Olson argued that there’s only one way to recover from advanced institutional sclerosis: be utterly defeated in a world war. He compares the postwar experiences of Germany and Japan with the postwar experiences of Britain and France to make his case. Germany and Japan had to start from scratch. That’s precisely why they were able to grow so much more quickly than Britain and France after the war, which won the war and thereby were encumbered by the survival of their prewar institutions—and their prewar sclerosis. How did the United States government avoid institutional sclerosis through almost two centuries of its existence? The answer is simple: the founders set up a system that by its nature prevents institutional sclerosis from getting out of hand. The enumerated powers restricted the number of favors within the power of government to sell. Sclerosis is impossible if no amount of lobbying can give Congress the power to satisfy the desires of the special interests.

And that brings me to my second reason for arguing that we cannot roll back the reach of government through the political process: the constitutional revolution that occurred from 1937 through 1943.

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