While reading Steven Teles’s long tome on kludgeocracy in National Affairs, I was reminded of what a Philadelphia congressman once told me in confidence. He told me that he favored the introduction of gambling in Pennsylvania because it is a painless way to raise revenue. The congressman told me this privately, and I was privately appalled. I was appalled because the gambling industry is about the furthest thing from painless for the people who are stripped of their income and savings at the gaming tables and slot machines. I was also appalled that this alleged liberal had lost all will to fight openly for social justice and a progressive tax code.
Mr. Teles coined the term “kludgeocracy” to denote a relatively recent development in public policy-making.
A “kludge” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.
As conservatives took over the Republican Party and Grover Norquist imposed his pledge on the caucus to never raise taxes, the left was driven into a defensive crouch where the temptation to raise revenues and distribute benefits more surreptitiously than through the income tax code became irresistible.
A byproduct of this is that the benevolent hand of government is hidden from citizens who don’t realize that they’re benefitting from disguised tax breaks, subsidized grants, or aid doled out by private third-party entities. Without direct and transparent options, liberals have settled for helping people afford an education, buy a house, or receive medical attention by the only means possible, and that often means that they get little to no credit for it from the beneficiaries. Instead, people confront complex and often infuriating bureaucracy.
The argument that liberals could benefit from a less complex government is compelling, but it wouldn’t work unless conservatives allowed it to work. Mr. Teles argues that conservatives are changing and perhaps coming to see the privatization of everything as a problem akin to the too-big-to-fail banks on Wall Street. After all, private companies that are completely dependent on government spending for their existence are really only more expensive and less accountable versions of the Federal Government. They also disguise the true size of government in many instances, undermining a core conservative criticism.
Maybe both parties have an interest in simplifying the way government operates, but it won’t happen so long as the Republicans are anti-tax absolutists and the American people still demand services.
For now, that Philadelphia congressman’s risk-avoidant approach to raising revenue will continue to prevail. And we will build more kludges.