The Best Thing About Good Government is that it Works Best When it Doesn’t Work

Efficient and effective government is a dream that could turn into a nightmare

Are you fed-up with the way the government in Washington is gridlocked? I certainly am. But, you know what? We should really count our lucky stars for a government that functions in this manner, because the alternative would be so much worse.

As a whole, Americans are dissatisfied with their government. The frustration engendered by the perceptible stalemate and ineffectiveness of the government translates into a steady and pitiful 15 percent approval rating for Congress and 46 percent for the president. Here’s the way the latest Gallup poll sees the issue:


The problems the country faces are obvious – the economy, deficit spending, national debt, national security and immigration. And yet the response by our political leaders to solve these difficulties has been nothing more than a gobbledygook of charges, counter-charges, recrimination and demagoguery. Our leaders seem to prefer this approach as a substitute for solid solutions. This state of affairs conjures up the vision of a sterile rooster let loose in a barnyard of promiscuous hens. The result is a lot of commotion and feathers flying, but in the end nothing productive happens.

Who Can Blame Us?

It is understandable that we are disgruntled with the stagnation of our government, but there is one group (at least most of them) who would be standing and cheering if they could witness the inability of the government to act with unrestrained alacrity and adeptness. The Founding Fathers of our country – for good reason – deliberately adopted a form of government calculated to be dysfunctional; and they certainly got their wish.

The real debt of gratitude owed the Founding Fathers is not for the revolution that freed the American colonies from Great Britain, but – and this was their real brilliance – for their adoption of the inefficient, unwieldy and ponderous republican form of government that has not only survived, but has flourished for over 225 years. But it was not easy.

Led by Jefferson and Madison, many of the country’s founders – called “Republicans” – favored the cumbersome, diffused, constrained and purposeful division of power that defines the republican formula of government. The central theology of such a government is that power is broadly vested in the people. These “Republicans” believed that power should move upward through the elected representatives of the people.

Another group of early leaders – led by Hamilton and Adams – did not trust the “judgment of the masses” and feared that a republican form of government would – as it had in all previous republics – degenerate into mob rule, anarchy and chaos. This group, known as Federalists, believed that the most efficient type of government – and what was needed for America – was a strong central government, much like a monarchist system, where the power resides at the top, vested in leaders who serve for life and then pass that power on by heredity.

Jefferson and his followers recognized the inefficiency and cumbersomeness of a republican government, but felt it was small price to pay for rejecting the Jeffersonmonarchist type of government that – while efficient and fast-acting – could easily morph into a totalitarian government that would eventually nullify the very rights and freedoms they had risked their lives to win. For them, the right to disagree, deliberate and delay the actions of government trumped the threats to individual liberty inherent in a government that was efficient and effective.

Jefferson recognized the necessity of a viable central government, because as Governor of Virginia and a Congressman under the Articles of Confederation (America’s first government) he understood the frustrations of responsibility without the power of authority, but feared a government that had the ability to usurp the power of the people because history had taught him that it would. He was convinced that if the public were educated about the issue – by extended debate and discourse – then by and large the majority would come to the right conclusion. As Jefferson wrote in 1798, “In every free and deliberating society, there must from the nature of man be opposite parties and violent dissensions and discords. This division is necessary to induce each to watch and debate to the people the proceedings of the other … A little patience and we shall see … the people recovering their true sight.”

To Hamilton’s credit, once the constitution implementing the republican form of government was adopted, he agreed to “give it a chance;” even though he felt Hamiltonit would lead to failure and the disintegration of the country. From a pragmatic standpoint, Hamilton set about to stretch the limits of government power under the constitution because he also believed that a weak central government would put America at risk and disadvantage in commerce and diplomacy when dealing with other world governments that were totalitarian and monarchist.

The philosophical conflict between Jefferson’s belief in the need for a central government but one that was constrained by a dispersion of power, and Hamilton’s equally honest and patriotic view that the best way to protect the rights of the people was to give the government the power to overrule the excesses of the “masses and mobs,” became the central – and highly emotional – political discourse of that time. And it is has echoed through the ages to frustrate us even today.

This is a good thing, because it has been this dynamic political tension that, in all likelihood, is what has enabled the American Republic to survive longer than any republican form of government in the history of the world. It turns out that – given all the other options – a government that is fractured and diffuse and seems powerless to work efficiently actually works best.

And the Moral of the Story …

When it comes to government, be careful what you wish for, because when you get it, you may not want it. It may seem like a good idea to have a government that functions in an efficient and effective manner, but the only way to achieve this is to increase and consolidate power at a central point. Power is not elastic, so power granted or taken by one faction is power lost by another. Power set in motion in one direction tends to continue in motion in that direction. For a society to function, the people must be willing to share power with their government, but it should be like a library, where power is loaned but not owned.

That is the beauty of the American republican constitutional form of government. The structure of the document encouraged the debate, discourse and disagreement among those who feared the granting the government too much power and those who feared that without enough power, the government and the country would fail. The result is messy, confusing and frustrating, but the longevity and success of the American government proves that – with patience – in the end, the government that works best is the government that is designed not to work.


One response to “The Best Thing About Good Government is that it Works Best When it Doesn’t Work

  1. I’m fascinated and considering what you’re currently talking about here.

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