I realized something upon publishing my the article on the House Speakership: Americans, not just my students, have a skewed understanding and expectation of American government.
Specifically, we expect our government to do a lot, quickly and efficiently.
Governments and Efficiency
When we look at history to analyze the “efficiency” of government, a few things come to mind. First off, we have to know what government is meant to do if we’re to know whether or not they’re doing those tasks efficiently. Governments throughout history have had a vast number of jobs and but the one they’ve done most efficiently has been to control.
Efficient means: “Causing effects; producing; that causes any thing to be what is is” and “acting or producing effectively with a minimum of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort.”
Clearly then, it is imperative that we know what effect any given government is supposed to cause to know if that government is causing the desired or expected effect.
Most governments throughout history have had one effect they desired to cause: control. And the government’s most efficient at controlling their citizenries have been the most abusive, tyrannical and dictatorial governments.
Governments where power is consolidated into fewer hands are best equipped to control more easily and efficiently. Some of the most efficient governments have also been some of the most brutal and savage. Stalin’s government was incredibly efficient at controlling any and all who would question or speak out against the power of the government.
Our Government Was Never Created to Do A LOT
The U.S. government was not created for control. The framers created the federal government, as well as the state and local governments, to provide the bare minimum law and order needed to avoid total chaos and anarchy. Their understanding of human nature led them to the understanding that human beings need government to protect each other from each other.
However, the founders also knew that in order to protect humans and their private property from each other, they’d have to give other flawed humans power to do so. This means that they did not want to give these flawed humans much power to govern with–just the bare minimum. One way to give power while limiting power was to break that power apart and distribute it into thousands of different flawed hands.
The benefit of doing so? It prevents any single individual from wielding that power in an abusive, arbitrary way. How? By pitting thousands of different flawed, ambitious, power hungry individuals against each other.
Further, after distributing the power into so many different hands, the framers confined that power by laying out exactly what that power could be used for. The federal government’s list of specific, confined and limited powers is in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. The state governments each have their own Constitutions and the local governments have their job descriptions as well.
And, while I won’t go into the specific powers in this post, understand that the founders gave the bare minimum of powers to the federal government. Governments, specifically the federal one, in America aren’t supposed to do much. The much that many Americans expect the federal government to do is actually something the state governments were expected to do (i.e. education, welfare, policing and the like).
Our Government Was Never Created to Move Quickly
As it’s probably already apparent, because the framers broke government power–which is usually consolidated into one or a few hands–into thousands of different hands, the U.S. governmental system moves slow.
Given that most governments exist to make law, a fast moving government would be a government that makes a lot of law. The more law, the more control the government has over the citizenry. In America, the various constitutions are supposed to limit the kinds of laws each government passes, but the checks and balances exist to limit the number of laws passed.
Our government was never supposed to be a lean, mean, law making machine. It’s supposed to be fraught with disagreements, diversity and ambition counteracting ambition.
When people get mad at the federal Congress and say that it “does nothing”, what exactly are they wanting it to do? Make more laws? Because that’s all it’s built to do and many of the things people want Congress to do, Congress was never empowered by the Constitution to do. Do Americans really want more federal law? Because that’s what they’d be getting if Congress were to somehow stop functioning the way it’s supposed to function and were to start pumping at laws at rapid speed.
For a little context: Congress introduced 17,812 new potential laws in the 117th Congress, which is the past two years, 2020-2022. Of those 17,812, only 1,082 passed, approximately 6%. On average 4-8% of the legislation introduced in Congress, actually becomes law.
From January 3, 1973 – December 30, 1974, Congress introduced 26,222 potential laws and 1,138 (4%) actually passed. This means that every two years Congress is passing anywhere between 800-1000 new laws. If we assume Congress passes 900 new laws every two years, we can estimate that, so far, Congress has passed 105,300 laws out of approximately 2,340,000 introduced potential laws. Imagine if our system was fast? Imagine if it wasn’t riddled with roadblocks?
And this is just Congressional law making. We’re not talking about executive orders, executive action, bureaucratic rules, state laws, county law and the like.
And so, our government was never created to do a whole lot. The cause it was supposed to effect was simple: avoid chaos by bringing a bit of order to a society that cannot function without law. And let’s try to create as many roadblocks, checks and balances into all the layers of government so that the government itself does not destroy the citizenry it was created to protect.
The Liberty Belle