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The Trouble with Government
By Derek Bok
Harvard University Press
493 pgs, US$35

Bait and switch

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 16, 2001

The Trouble with GovernmentWeighing in at 493 pages, a wag might be tempted to say that it's far too short for a book entitled The Trouble with Government. While the book is ostensibly about fixing the readily apparent problems with America's federal government, Derek Bok's real agenda is fairly transparent. The reforms he proposes aren't designed to reduce or even hold the size and scope of government, but rather radically increase its size.

Bok begins his exercise by looking at the usual suspects: politicians, the media and special interests. Politicians, he writes, are better educated and motivated than their counterparts in the past. If they are unable to carryout their jobs adequately, it is mostly because of the cynicism and distrust of the public, ideological battles that make it hard to do good things, and a constant pressure to raise money.

For those inclined to attack the Fourth Estate, Bok also provides a defense. He dismisses notions that the press is having a negative effect on the functioning of government and blames market forces for forcing more glitz and less substance into news coverage. Even interest groups, traditional boogey man of very would-be government reformer, come out somewhat clean in Bok's survey. Voting records don't seem to be tied to PAC contributions though they tend to reinforce the advantages that incumbents have at election time. A greater danger, writes Bok, are those unregulated soft money contributions.

The real problem, writes Bok, is that a majority of Americans feel disconnected from their government and sometimes for spurious reasons. Most of the bad things they believe about their government is wrong and they don't take the time to make themselves knowledgeable about all the important work their representatives do - or try to - on their behalf. Cynicism and distrust are self-fulfilling prophecies and will only doom the Republic, if anyone thinks of the United States as a republic these days, into only reflecting the dreams and desires of an affluent minority which still takes the time to vote and learn about the issues of the day.

Since a majority of Americans fail to take an active role in how their government works, writes Bok, legislators have little reason to act on the nation's collective hopes and dreams. By engaging the average person, he says, government can finally act on what he believes are the overwhelming desires of Americans: universal healthcare, campaign finance reform and an increase in entitlements for the poor. Indeed, campaign finance reform and universal healthcare are mentioned so often that a reader could be forgiven if they thought that the galleys of two different books were accidentally mixed together. One hardly has to be a former president of Harvard University to know what he was really striving for with The Trouble With Government.

It's hard to take someone claiming to be providing unbiased solutions for problems seriously when they repeatedly claim morality is equivalent to the number and generosity of entitlements or when they make an outlandish claim that universal healthcare would "have no obvious effect on the economy one way or another." It's also a bit difficult to take someone seriously when they begin the book by praising the strong bonds that a belief in America's Constitution has created, and then spend the next several hundred pages considering it an obstacle that must be overcome if his agenda is to be put in place.

Of course, very few efforts are completely flawed. Although Bok is hardly the first person to bemoan the apathy of the average American when it comes to being civically involved, he makes a passionate case that unless citizens become more involved, the future of the United States is in grave danger.

"Participation in government is more than a way of helping democracy work well. It is the common bond that holds together an extraordinarily diverse society. More than any other leading democracy, America is a country that preserves its unity through a shared belief in its Constitution, its institutions of government, and its democratic principles," writes Bok.

"Any tend toward loosening these commitments through the slow spread of civic indifference and disengagement weakens the bonds that hold Americans together as a nation."

In that, Bok is entirely right. Throughout the past few centuries, intellectual elite like John Stuart Mill have always feared that a majority of citizens would exercise their democratic rights by voting and becoming involved. No doubt fearing that the rabble would destroy his ordered and familiar society, Mill once famously opined that the average Briton should have a vote but only if graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had two. With declining rates of participation by the poor, Mill's desire has largely come true.

No democracy, however, can survive with a slowly growing minority of the population feeling that their government no longer represents them, which if anything is Bok's most important point. It's shame then that he feels the only way to engage them is to pander to them with more government entitlements. Had he stuck to his central thesis, that the trouble with government is people themselves and come up with some unique solutions to solve the problem, and stayed away from his transparent attempt to promote campaign finance reform, universal healthcare and increased overall entitlements, The Trouble With Government would have been a useful exercise.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer and editor of Enter Stage Right.

Buy Derek Bok's The Trouble with Government at Amazon.com for $28 (20% off).

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Where's the small government? by W. James Antle III (March 20, 2000)
    Republicans, Democrats and nearly everyone else agree, smaller government is better. W. James Antle III wants to know where it is




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