Sclerotic Democracy

May 19, 1994|By TRB

Washington -- Who is Congressman Chris Smith?

According to the official biography released by his office, ''Congressman Chris Smith, 4th District, New Jersey was re-elected to serve a seventh term in Congress on November 3, 1992, with 63 percent of the final vote. Congressman Smith has been an active legislator sponsoring bills with a particular emphasis on children, veterans, senior citizens, oppressed peoples, handicapped persons, small business, taxpayers and students. He believes that adherence to moral principles transcends both party loyalty and political pragmatism.''

A classic, I think.

Has any single constituent escaped the ''particular emphasis'' of Congressman Smith's legislative zeal? Are we all covered? Good. Fortunately for the fourth district, Congressman Smith's preference for ''moral principles'' over ''political pragmatism'' doesn't stop him from celebrating, in the same press release, the ''millions of much needed dollars'' he secured for a local hospital, ''a $35.5 million housing-rehabilitation program, a $10 million reconstruction program, a $5.6 million grant for a new senior-citizens housing project and several hundred thousand dollars for homeless-shelter programs.''

Congressman Smith is, of course, a Republican.

What Congressman Smith calls ''political pragmatism,'' Jonathan Rauch calls ''Demosclerosis,'' in his new book of that name. Mr. Rauch blames neither the politicians nor the citizens for our present political discontents, but rather a degenerative tendency built into democracy itself.

His interesting and well-written book is largely a gloss on the ideas of Mancur Olson, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. Mr. Olson gets discovered every few years. By now he must feel like the African native in the New Yorker cartoon, watching the great white explorer pose before a waterfall. ''It is a nice waterfall, isn't it?'' he says. ''I've always hoped that someone would discover it.''

Mr. Olson's thinking derives from the classic game-theory concept of the ''prisoner's dilemma'' or ''tragedy of the commons.'' If every farmer in the village grazes his animals on the village's shared land to the maximum extent, the commons will be depleted and they'll all be worse off than if they'd shown some restraint. But there is no incentive for any individual to show restraint.

The general point is that there are many situations in human life where everyone acting in his or her own self-interest leaves everyone worse off.

The specific political point concerns ''special interests,'' or what used to be known grandly as ''pluralism.'' In the early postwar era, pluralism was held to be a great strength of the American political system. The premise was that the sum of all the group interests was the general interest. But all the separate special interests don't add up to the general interest.

This is not because ''special interests'' are something apart from the normal citizenry. In fact, we are all part of one or more ''special interest.'' There is no guarantee that everyone's special interest will be weighed equally, but that is not the real problem. The real problem is the tragedy of the commons: Each of us pursuing our own special interest can harm the general interest, not serve it. ''Children, veterans, senior citizens, oppressed peoples, handicapped persons, small business, taxpayers and students'' all get their goodies, and the result is a national debt that harms all more than the goodies benefit them.

Mancur Olson's innovative twist on this is that the special-interest problem gets worse the longer societies enjoy peace and prosperity. German society was destroyed by fascism and a losing war. The web of interest groups with politicalpower was destroyed along with it. British society survived World War II largely intact.

As a result, during the post-war period, Germany was able to thrive while Britain sank in a swamp of rival claims by interest groups. Or that's the theory. Mr. Olson's ''The Rise and Decline of Nations'' was published in 1982. Germany's current troubles fit pretty well into his thesis. Fifty years on, Mr. Rauch's ''demosclerosis'' has set in.

My own suspicion is that systemic explanations like these let the citizenry off too easy. So does the fashion for blaming the politicians. What Mr. Rauch calls ''demosclerosis'' is the political manifestation of the ''Culture of Complaint'' Robert Hughes wrote about a couple years ago in book of that title.

Other social critics have pointed to the litigation explosion, which turns every slight into an occasion for a lawsuit, and the so-called ''recovery movement'' -- 12-step programs and so on -- which turns every bump in life's road into an occasion for dramatized self-pity. They see these as evidence of an erosion of the American character. Our political dilemma can be seen that way, too.

Many political conservatives love to wax indignant about ''victimology.'' And generally they agree with the complaints about lawsuits and 12-step programs. But they prefer to blame the disease's political manifestations on ''Washington'' -- thus letting the voters off the hook.

It's delightful that Congressman Chris believes moral principles transcend political pragmatism. Luckily for him, his constituents don't believe him.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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