The extent to which the American obsession with government has become pathological became clearest to me when a gay friend called not long ago to tell me about his (then) upcoming trip to Washington. This was no fringe radical, but a middle-aged professor with an endowed chair. He told me he would be in Washington to see the AIDS quilt, which was not surprising, since he has lost dozens of friends to the disease. Then he added that he would be joining an activist group's march to the White House, where they would protest AIDS by attempting to scatter the ashes of AIDS victims on the White House lawn.
Why in the world, I wondered, dump ashes on the president's lawn, of all places? Why make the president the focal point of protest? Did he cause this disease? Could he cure it if he tried? My friend explained: No, the president did not cause AIDS; no, he cannot cure AIDS; but I am angry, angry at the disease and at the unresponsiveness of the government and of society and of everyone. And so he marched to the White House.
Was he right? Was he wrong? Never mind. The point is not to judge but simply to observe: that he and many millions of Americans, liberals and conservatives and libertarians alike, have in the postwar period turned government into the wellspring and focal point and repository of all ideology. They have turned every social argument into an argument about government, politics, or law. Were Wall Street financiers too greedy in the 1980s? Then Ronald Reagan is to blame for "setting the tone." Are race relations sour and hate crimes proliferating? Then the fault lies with George Bush for "dividing the country." Was South-Central Los Angeles burned and looted? Then that would be because of Lyndon Johnson's welfare programs.
Obsession with government is hardly new for Americans, but in recent years it has flourished to the point where talk about government policy is choking off and squeezing out all other kinds of thinking about how to solve problems—even about what constitutes a problem. If you are an American liberal, chances are that you believe government is the solution to most national problems worthy of the name. If you find a problem and then fail to propose a governmental solution, you are, perforce, "doing nothing." If you are a conservative or a libertarian, then chances are that you believe government is the cause of most national problems worthy of the name. If you find a problem whose solution does not entail blaming, shrinking, or reorienting government, then you yawn and look for a more exciting problem. Libertarians, anti-government conservatives, and left-liberals disagree on many things, but they are all governmentalists.
I don't have a prediction, because predictions are always wrong. I do have a hunch, a hope, and a worry. The hunch is that government's irrelevance will continue to grow. The hope is that people will see what is happening and begin thinking about new (or ancient) ways to solve problems. Then, with any luck, the age of governmentalism, when every problem and every ideology was defined by its relation to government, will pass. My worry is that my hope is naive, and that American political discourse will continue to grind back and forth in the rut of government-speak.
I am not suggesting that government will ever be wholly irrelevant, or even that it will be unimportant. I am suggesting, rather, that the country has entered a period when its problems are of kinds that government is very poorly adapted to solve. When Americans obsess with Washington today, they are like the man who compulsively uses a hammer to pound away at a screw, and at everything else. Why the growing mismatch between problem and tool? First, because government has changed; second, because the country's problems have changed.
There was a time when government worked, if not brilliantly, then much better than it works today. In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved from proposal to enactment in only three weeks. More astonishingly, when it was seen to have served its purpose, it went away. The relatively short response time, coupled with the ability to get rid of at least some things that were failures or anachronisms, meant that government had a certain capacity to solve problems. That capacity has diminished steadily ever since. Over the last 30 or so years, the extraordinary proliferation of interest groups, each seeking and then professionally defending every kind of perk and subsidy, has petrified government. That is demosclerosis: government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt.
There was a time, too, when central government was relatively well suited to what were the country's main problems. Government is good at waging war, building big infrastructure projects, writing checks, and striking down local barriers to opportunity. Until the mid-'60s or so, what government was good at more or less suited the country's needs which were to wage the Cold War, to build a national highway system, to establish Social Security and other basic safety-net programs, and to overturn discriminatory laws. You can argue about how serious the problems were or how effectively government responded, but most people will agree that the federal government did have the means for arms racing, road building, check writing, and abolishing Jim Crow.
Today the country's most serious problems—not the only ones, but the most serious ones—are problems not in the physical or institutional infrastructure but in the behavioral and moral infrastructure. Over the long term, a people's success depends critically on lawfulness, hard work, hard studying, thrift, and stable families strongly committed to children. On at least four of those five (the possible exception is hard work), such objective indicators as we have—from murder rates and test scores to divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births—point to a striking, sometimes shocking, deterioration over the last few decades.
Some of those indicators beggar belief, so fast and hard have they fallen. Today American children are killing and being killed at rates wholly unknown to modern Western experience. In 1960, a teenager was twice as likely to die of cancer as to die of homicide; by 1980, the odds had flipped over. That was not only because cancer went down; killing went up. The homicide rate has doubled since the early 1960s; the arrest rate for teenagers and young people has tripled.
Depressing facts and figures about schooling are well known. As for saving, America before World War II was one of the thriftiest countries in the world. Now it is notorious for its low savings rate, which, in 1991 and on a net basis, was one-ninth Japan's. The collapse of national saving was largely the doing of the government, with its big deficits, but individuals have followed the same pattern; in the 1980s, the personal savings rate was only two-thirds the level of the 1960s.
Families are positively falling to pieces on every side (no, not just among blacks), with repercussions that we are only beginning to plumb. The divorce rate has doubled since 1960, to levels unknown elsewhere in the developed world; the illegitimacy rate has quintupled. In 1988, one in four American children was born out of wedlock. Today almost one in four American children lives in a home headed by a single mother, and such a child, on average, is likelier to be poor, sick, unhappy, and dangerous.
Washington can diddle with the tax code, hire or fire bureaucrats, and restructure welfare programs. Some of those changes might help. But they won't help much. Washington cannot hold many families together or force many students to study harder or stop many teenagers from shooting other teenagers over bags of potato chips. Businesses' main complaint with young workers is not that they can't add but that they lack work ethic, reliability, and civility; national retraining programs can't do much about surliness or laziness. Wherever the answers (if any) to such problems lie, they are not in Washington.
The obsession with government has itself become a serious problem: It monopolizes people's attention and usurps their energies at a time when attention and energy need to be refocused. Americans argue and argue, for example, about whether the government should allow public funds to be spent at private schools; school choice is the most passionately argued issue in American education today. Now, school choice is on the whole a good idea, and a morally mandatory one for inner-city parents whose children are trapped in dangerous and dysfunctional schools. But the public-private argument is wholly blind to the fact that test scores have fallen among public-school students and private-school students.
The pattern holds across the board; something out there is eroding academic performance in public and private schools alike. What kind of something? High school students today hold down jobs to pay for cars; partly as a result, they do as much homework in a week (on average) as their Japanese counterparts do in a day. Teachers say they don't assign homework because students won't do it and parents won't make them do it. And so on.
In the educational debate, why do we argue the public-private issue to death while mostly ignoring the homework issue (which today is not, strictly speaking, an "issue" at all, because it is almost never discussed)? Partly because the public-private argument is consequential, yes; but also because it is the easiest argument to have. The school-choice debate is comfortable and well rehearsed and fits easily within the standard political vocabulary. Everyone knows what everyone else thinks, and what he thinks of what everyone else thinks. It is a Kabuki argument.
Two smallish groups, both of them somewhat out of the political mainstream, are starting to get it. One is the religious right; the other is the communitarian movement. Each has its shortcomings: The religious right tends (though not quite so much lately) to prescribe repressive measures, and the communitarians don't know what to prescribe. But at least their thinking is pointed in the right general direction, namely, not at Washington.
One major politician, too, is starting to get it, and his name is Bill Clinton. There are many drawbacks to the man, but his rhetoric has suggested an understanding that deterioration in the moral infrastructure is not reversible just by him. (To negligent fathers: "Governments don't raise children; parents do. And you should." From his inaugural address: "Let us all take more responsibility.") There is reason to doubt whether his understanding will overcome his politician's compulsion to pander, his lawyer's affinity for legalisms, and his liberal's enthusiasm for programs. But the very fact that a modern Democrat could dabble in morals talk ("A New Covenant") and still be elected president may be a sign that governmentalism is starting to wane and that people like my gay friend may soon direct more of their energies to their families, their friends, their communities, and their hearts—for that is where the country's new problems, and therefore its new solutions, mainly lie.
If you ask me what those solutions are, I tell you I don't know. If you then tell me I am useless and you go back to talking about school choice or AFDC eligibility rules, I say: Suit yourself, but if one hopes to find solutions, one must at least look in the right place.
To that end, I offer a proposal: a deprogramming regimen for the governmentally obsessed. Call together all the usual policy-work suspects in Washington. Call them in from the centrist Brookings Institution, the libertarian Cato Institute, the conservative Heritage Foundation, the center-right American Enterprise Institute, the culturally conservative Family Research Council, the center-left Urban Institute, the labor-left Economic Policy Institute, and all the others. Plant them at a three-day conference under some hackneyed rubric like "Exploring New Approaches to Social Problems." Let them say anything they want. Just ask them to agree to this single restriction: No one may propose to change a single line of state or federal statute.
When they complain (and they will) that real reform can't be attained without governmental measures, tell them, "Three days a year is not too much time to spend thinking about nongovernmental approaches." They will be unhappy, confused, at a loss. They will sputter, drool, and bump into walls. Then, after a while, they will start to think about the very large portion of America that is not the government. They will hatch ideas, some of them possibly good. They will begin to think a little bit differently. That is where the next quarter century begins: with the realization that governmentalism has long since reached its limits.
Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor of National Journal, is the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (University of Chicago Press).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Caesar's Ghost".