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Government Performance: Missing Opportunities to Solve Problems

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Abstract

Journalists, activists, and other policy actors have strong incentives to publicize and stir up political conflict. Newspapers frame stories about complex issues around personality battles among the players. Political activists with parochial interests claim to be on the front lines of a "cultural war" that will determine the fate of the nation.1 And candidates for public office go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from their allegedly extremist opponents.

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This is a review of two books on public policymaking performance and civil service reform at the federal level: A GOVERNMENT ILL EXECUTED: THE DECLINE OF THE FEDERAL SERVICE AND HOW TO REVERSE IT by Paul C. Light (Harvard U. Press 2008) and PROMOTING THE GENERAL WELFARE: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON GOVERNMENT PERFORMANCE, edited by Alan S. Gerber & Eric M. Patashnik (Brookings Institution Press, 2006).
Article
Classical pluralists, the authors of The Federalist Papers, and many modern scholars have emphasized the critical role of the interests in shaping policies. Still, in general, deductive theory has not provided the hypotheses and explanations offered by political science in studying interests. Economists studying interest groups have taken a more abstract, analytical approach, but this work is largely unknown in political science, perhaps because it is enshrouded in jargon and arcane terminology. We review this literature, using as our motivation two fundamental questions: First, how do interest groups influence policy in a democracy? Second, how should the institutions of government be designed to encourage or control this influence? The models we review are generally of a formal, mathematical nature, but we focus solely on their intuitive content and their contribution to our knowledge of democracy and representation.
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The prevailing political science wisdom is that narrow interests regularly triumph over the general public. Yet the stunning passage of broad-based policy reforms in the face of intense clientele opposition suggests that the U.S. political system has a greater capacity to serve diffuse interests than has often been thought. Some of the most provocative policy-oriented political-science research during the 1980s and 1990s examined how these surprising reform victories occurred. Unfortunately, general-interest reforms do not always stick; reforms may be corrupted or reversed after their enactment. The long-term sustainability of any given policy reform hinges on the successful reworking of political institutions and on the generation of positive policy-feedback effects, especially the empowerment of social groups with a stake in the reform&s maintenance. This paper explores the postenactment dynamics of three canonical instances of general-interest reform legislation: tax reform, agricultural subsidy reform, and airline deregulation. Only in the airline-deregulation case has the self-reinforcing dynamic required for political sustainability been unmistakably evident. For analysts and advocates of general-interest reform measures alike, the clear lesson is to attend far more closely to what happens after reforms become law.
Article
This paper presents a theory of competition among pressure groups for political influence. Political equilibrium depends on the efficiency of each group in producing pressure, the effect of additional pressure on their influence, the number of persons in different groups, and the deadweight cost of taxes and subsidies. An increase in deadweight costs discourages pressure by subsidized groups and encourages pressure by taxpayers. This analysis unifies the view that governments correct market failures with the view that they favor the politically powerful: both are produced by the competition for political favors.
See American Political Science Association Task Force on Inequality
See American Political Science Association Task Force on Inequality, "American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality," Perspectives on Politics, vol. 2 (December 2004): 651-66.
For a defense and insightful exposition of Schumpeter's theory of democracy, see Richard A. Posner, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy
  • Harper
Harper, 1950), p. 269. For a defense and insightful exposition of Schumpeter's theory of democracy, see Richard A. Posner, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 158-212.
For an excellent review of the two main paradigms of public choice theory, see
  • Posner
  • Pragmatism Law
Posner, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy, p. 386. 11. For an excellent review of the two main paradigms of public choice theory, see
Pragmatism and Democracy, 194. 19. Pork barrel projects, for example, do not constitute a significant share of federal spending and can be useful for building winning coalitions for general interest legislation
  • Law Posner
Posner, Law, Pragmatism and Democracy, 194. 19. Pork barrel projects, for example, do not constitute a significant share of federal spending and can be useful for building winning coalitions for general interest legislation.
  • See John
  • W Ellwood
  • Eric M Patashnik
See John W. Ellwood and Eric M. Patashnik, "In Praise of Pork," Public Interest (Winter 1993), pp. 19-33;
23. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission
  • Richard A Posner
Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford University Press, 2004). 23. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004).