Is US Politics Fit for Purpose?

The recent budget crisis in New York has put an unfortunate spotlight on a seemingly particulalrly inept branch of local government. Whilst the Greek crisis rolls on and the new Tory government in the UK tries to solve its problems with an austerity budget, some feel that the US is currently poorly set up to tackle it’s own significant deficit, particularly at a State level.

In a recent This American Life podcast Richard Ravitch, a consultant sent in several times to try and rescue NY State from financial meltdown, claims that “there’s a new economic paradigm out there, a very unpleasant one...and the political paradigm has not yet changed enough to accommodate the fundamental changes that have happened to our economy”. His principle criticism is that the Legislature doesn’t appear to understand the urgency of the budget deficit and how it is spiralling out of control.

He’s supported in his views by the leading Democrat Liz Krueger who claims legislators “don’t feel the same sense of urgency as a governor” as well as, unsurprisingly, the current embattled governor who notes that the only people who seem to understand his position are other governors.

This problem may be explained by the common behavioral bias called the ‘Bystander Effect’, it indicates that people are much less likely to help out in an emergency when they are in large groups. Effectively personal responsibility for a problem seems to be diluted across the members of the group and leads to inertia.

This might have troubling conclusions for a lot of governmental structures which often employ large groups to make decisions.

Obviously being decisive isn’t the only consideration in democratic government. For example, clear and responsive decision making must be offset by the need for policy to be representative of a spectrum of public opinion. Another factor in the favorability of large committee structures must also surely be the commonly held view that more heads are better than one.

Whilst the former of these rationales is an almost indisputable foundation of democracy we should perhaps look to question the viability of the latter. Richard Wiseman outlines a wealth of evidence against the perceived benefits of group decision making in his book 59 seconds. Rather than groups making better decisions, these studies indicate that groups are over influenced by dominant members and more likely to make decisions that are more extreme than sensible.

Perhaps therefore the autocratic nature of Britain’s First Past the Post system is in fact the type of politics needed to solve the public funding crisis we’re in.


Post a Comment