Kookery, cont’d

There’s a tension between competence and ideological loyalty. But without a certain amount of loyalty to hold it together, an administration can’t get much done, which is a different form of incompetence.

Steve Teles’s post (below) makes an important point: a President who fails to fill his administration with people who share a common vision of the public good will fail to accomplish much, because it’s hard to move the bureaucracy (and, he might have added, the Congress and its committees) and even harder if the administration doesn’t speak with a single voice.

That was part (only part) the the sad story of the Carter Administration: on a wide range of issues, no one knew what the Administration position was. I was a mid-level civil servant &#8212 a GS-15, a grade equivalent to Colonel&#8212 working on drugs in the policy shop at the Criminal Division of DoJ, and I could never figure out whether the Administration favored or opposed the legalization of cannabis. That wasn’t a problem after the Reaganoids took over. They had some pretty dumb ideas, and some pretty vicious ones, but there wasn’t any problem figuring out what they were for and what they were against. (GHWB was in between Reagan and Carter on this score; GWB is far more extreme than Reagan. Except on economic policy, Clinton was about as bad as Carter.)

Thus, within broad limits, the more single-minded an Administration is, the more likely it is to get its way. But it’s hard to be single-minded without being simple-minded. The complexity of the real world means that if every decision is dictated by an ideology that unites all the players some of those decisions will be wrong. That creates a tension between two goals: having an effective administration, and having an administration that gets the right answers. Moreover, “loyalty” in the sense of being willing to decide complicated issues according to simple formulas is much easier to maintain if you’re not very smart and don’t know (or care) much about reality. Government by the stupid and ignorant is mostly bad government.

The alternative is to have a decision-making process sensitive both to politics &#8212 in both the high and low senses of that term &#8212 and to facts, analysis, and the judgment of those with long experience in actually doing the work of government, plus a managerial system that induces the departments to fight their battles within that process and then vigorously support the decision that results. That’s hard, not so much because of resistance from the career staff as because the cabinet is typically filled with people chosen as much to please various constituencies as for either competence or ideological loyalty. The tendency of forcing political commisars on the confirmable political appointees in the form of “special assistants” or “counsellors-to” heads of policy shops or even chiefs of staff &#8212 generically, “munchkins” &#8212 is one way of keeping the appointees in line, but it comes at the expense of their effectiveness within their own agencies.

I’m not sure I agree with Steve that the Senate confirmation process provides much of a check here. Too much of the action is in the non-confirmable munchkins like Monica Goodling. Someone like her would probably have been present in the White House liaison job at DoJ even if the Senate had done its job and rejected Alberto Gonzales as AG.

The network of parallel institutions the right wing has built because of its distrust of mainstream media, think tanks, and universities is now, as has been pointed out recently, as much of a problem as an asset, because it creates a coccoon that insulates conservative politicans from public opinion. By the same token, hiring through those parallel institutions tends to isolate conservative administrations from contact with reality. Like the restored Bourbons, they become equally incapable of learning and forgetting. On the other hand, the last two liberal administrations were full of smart people, but largely incapable of harnessing their energies together; the result was, mostly, paralysis.

I have no idea how the Republicans are going to solve their problem and make themselves once again a possible governing party. I hope it takes them a long time, but not forever; we need two parties either of which can be thought of seriously as potential stewards of the country’s interests. What the Democrats need is a President with the right values and enough smarts to hold contradictory ideas in mind at once, but with some of Reagan’s talent for herding cats. That’s a tall order.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com