Monday, July 25, 2016

The Just Limits of Competence

One of the subtexts of the populist revolt roiling American politics is the accusation that current governing elites have failed.  Certainly, we have seen a number of failures over the past decade--in foreign affairs, in the regulation of the financial markets, in the realm of national security, and so forth.  The Obama administration even struggled to roll out the website for its signature initiative (the Affordable Care Act).  In dealing with the challenges ahead, we need to take a balanced approach to the role of competence.

Yes, competence does matter in terms of running government.  One needn't be a radical technocrat to believe that it does.  Furthermore, competence can be an ally of limited government and individual liberty.  When the government fails to do that which is in its proper purview, it opens up the door to social and political disruptions that in turn create an opening for big-government pseudo-solutions.  For instance, if the mortgage and financial sectors had been more astutely regulated, the great meltdown of 2008 could have been avoided or at least lessened.  That meltdown paved the way for the stimulus and other bureaucratic overreaches of the Obama administration.

One could make a case that recent years have witnessed the following feedback loop: administrative incompetence leading to the growth of government bureaucracies, which in turn compounds the later bureaucratic failures.  This pattern has been damaging to both the nation as a whole and the enterprise of limited government.

However, competence by itself does not solve all problems.  We live in a flawed human world, so there will be challenges and setbacks no matter how skilled we are.  We can't expect perfection from any government actor--or any human actor at all.  It's because of this lack of perfection that we should be skeptical about assigning over all power to a single entity or to a narrow group of entities.  By diffusing power, we can lessen the likelihood of major crippling mistakes.  Technical competence also cannot simply adjudicate some of the deeper questions of politics (such as the best social organization, the ideals a society should embody, what exactly constitutes the good life, etc.).

Strongmen are no substitute for a responsible and limited republican politics, but, if republican leaders do not act responsibly, they also undermine the broader grounding of limited government.

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