Can Politicians “Fix Up the Country”?

Lynne Kiesling

In yesterday’s meeting in Chicago between President-elect Obama and Senator McCain, Mr. Obama said that they were going to discuss how to “work together to fix up the country”. This language really rankles me. It also rankles Russ Roberts, whose comments on this remark reflect my dislike of the “fix the country” metaphor:

Yep. The country is like a house. It just needs a new coat of paint, some piering done in the basement and some dry wall replaced. This is the biggest fantasy of politics, that the country is broken or damaged and we just need to get a different contractor in charge of the project who knows more about how to do renovations. It is a dangerous metaphor and an inaccurate one. It ignores the fundamental insight of economics that there are no solutions only trade-offs. It presumes, impossibly, that we share goals as a people when in fact, virtually every government policy benefits one group at the expense of another.

I actually think Russ is being a little generous. Not only is this “fix the country” metaphor dangerous and inaccurate; it can also reflect the extent to which politicians have the hubris to believe that they can control and manage outcomes. We are living with that hubris on a daily basis right now.


6 thoughts on “Can Politicians “Fix Up the Country”?

  1. Some policies are better than others; all are preferable to anarchy. That said, we get the government we deserve.

    By the way, you didn’t mention my personal favorite: that whoever is leading the Federal government is “running the country.” I think that’s just part of America’s fascination with the executive, the Big Guy, the Man at the Top. Whatever happened to our fierce independence, our questioning of authority? Instead, we allow corporate executives to claim greater and greater rewards for themselves, and politicians to aggregate more and more power, with nary a comment except to try to find another executive we can offer a bigger compensation package to and another politician in whom we can invest our national hopes and dreams.

  2. Unfortunately, I think the two most appropriate verbs are very overused right now: “facilitate” and “enable”.

    “Facilitate” and “enable” at least leave open the idea that the role of government is to reduce transaction costs that can stifle private exchange. Using those words would indicate that our politicians grasp at least somewhat clearly that economic activity and markets achieve beneficial order through decentralized coordination, not through centralized control.

  3. Lynne,

    The frequency with which those who seek to “facilitate” and “enable” end up shackling and disabling is awe inspiring. Command and control is far too often the order of the day.

    “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way” is not in the civilian government bureaucratic lexicon.

  4. Ed,

    Of course you are correct. I was being, as is the current fashion, “pragmatic”. Realistically, I don’t expect our politicians to be able to get the hell out of the way; given that, how can we minimize the harm they create?

  5. Ed,

    Of course you are correct. I was being, as is the current fashion, “pragmatic”. Realistically, I don’t expect our politicians to be able to get the hell out of the way; given that, how can we minimize the harm they create?

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