Belmont Club

The constipation of power

Mark Steyn describes the problem of understanding the gargantuan bills that come before Congress. In the NRO he says,

Thousand-page bills, unread and indeed unwritten at the time of passage, are the death of representative government. They also provide a clue as to why, in a country this large, national government should be minimal and constrained. Even if you doubled or trebled the size of the legislature, the Conyers conundrum would still hold: No individual can read these bills and understand what he’s voting on. That’s why the bulk of these responsibilities should be left to states and subsidiary jurisdictions, which can legislate on such matters at readable length and in comprehensible language. As for optimum bill size, the 1773 Tea Act, which provoked the Boston Tea Party, was 2,263 words. That sounds about right.

The information required to describe a system is proportional to the complexity of the undertaking. While the design for a rowboat can be set down on a single sheet of paper, describing the battleship New Jersey required a 175 tons of blueprints “equaling a single strip of paper 30 inches wide and 1,100 miles long”. The only way Mark Steyn’s vision of brevity can be attained is either for Congress to restrict its lawmaking to high level specifications or to construct systems incrementally. Any legislation which hopes to come in under 3,000 words must be either a framework document or an implementing rule within a given framework. But any attempt to comprehensively build a complex edifice — like health care — will almost by definition generate documents as voluminous as the battleship New Jersey blueprints.

So why can’t Congress work at a general level of specification and incrementally after that? After all, that is how many complex systems are designed.

Because to work that way would require giving up power. The framers of the Constitution set out the general principles but were prepared to leave the implementation details to others. Leaving decisions at lower levels of granularity to others requires a concession of authority. But if authority is hoarded at the center, then all specifications must be reached at the center as well. And hence the inevitability of the thousand-page bills that no single person can understand. The central idea of subsidiarity is that matters ought to be left to the smallest competent authority and a central authority confine itself to those tasks which can’t be performed at a more immediate or local level. Mark Steyn is right when he says that unless the subsidiary jurisdictions are enabled, unreadable legislation will not only become more common, it will become inevitable.

The real problem with a bloated central authority is that it cannot process information efficiently and cannot make decisions effectively because of a bad architecture. It contains the seeds of its own demise. The more it centralizes, the less it understands. The politicians at the center will be the last to realize that this undermines their position in the long run; but that only proves the point.

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