In Praise of Political Gridlock

The public airwaves are filled these days with cries of anguish and stinging criticism of the two major political parties’ failure to break the existing deadlock regarding tax rates, federal spending, entitlement reform, and related issues. This essay will argue that such denunciations are, for the most part, misplaced, and based on a failure to appreciate the reasons for this stalemate. Of course, there is nothing inherently praiseworthy about gridlock, but there are times, like the present, when it is unobjectionable if not actually commendable.

I believe that those now decrying partisan gridlock fail to appreciate its underlying moral dimension. They mistakenly assimilate the existing stalemate to something like the following case. Consider a basketball superstar, who we will call Lebron Bird Jordan (LBJ), whose contract with his team has now expired. LBJ hopes to negotiate a new contract with his team for $70 million over three years, but he is willing to accept a $60 million deal. Anything less and he will take his chances as a free agent.

The team that LBJ now plays for would ideally like to resign him for three years, and is willing to go as high as $70 million to keep him on the roster. In such circumstances, the fans of this team would be justified in complaining if LBJ is not resigned. After all, there is substantial overlap between the bottom line positions of the two sides, which should enable them to reach a mutually beneficial agreement somewhere between $60 and $70 million. Only a bad case of “ego” or a breakdown in communication could frustrate this outcome.

But our current politics is not like this, but much more closely resembles the controversy surrounding abortion rights. Imagine trying to broker a legislative compromise between two groups who believe respectively that (i) because the embryo/fetus incorporates all the genetic material required for life, and will normally develop into a fully functioning human being, it is entitled to full moral status at conception or within a few weeks thereof and (ii) a woman enjoys absolute moral sovereignty over her body, that the fetus is simply a part of her body, and thus subject to her control (including the right to abort it) up until the moment of delivery (or shortly before).

Obviously, a compromise proposal to permit discretionary abortions only during the first 20 weeks of gestation would be rejected by both sides as inconsistent with their sincerely held moral beliefs. While we are certainly entitled to criticize the positions of either group, I don’t think we can justly criticize the parties for holding to their principles.

Similarly, the current deadlock on tax rates, spending, and entitlements is the product of the dramatically different values held by our politicians, generally split along parties lines. Moreover, these opposing perspectives reflect the beliefs of substantial portions of our deeply polarized polity. Because our elected representatives are not political philosophers, they are unable to articulate their views in a manner than does them justice.

But this doesn’t mean that beneath it all there are not serious philosophical differences. Many of our leaders clearly believe that, generally speaking, financially successful people have justly earned their income, and thus are entitled to retain the bulk of it. Furthermore, they believe that the funding of our entitlement programs and discretionary spending by massive foreign borrowing represents intergenerational theft, violating the rights of future workers and taxpayers. I share these views: see // and //

On the other hand, many politicians believe that individual financial success is largely attributable to our society’s collective efforts and investments (as exemplified in the president’s now famous “You didn’t build that” comment). Accordingly, in the name of fairness they support higher taxes on the wealthy in order fund the redistribution of resources. Similarly, they contend that the finances of our entitlement programs should be stabilized by leveling higher payroll taxes on high earners and means-testing eligibility for benefits.

As in the abortion-rights case, the differences here are driven by the conflicting values held by the disputants, and thus there is little room for principled compromise. Gridlock is the inevitable result, and will persist until it is broken through the electoral process, or is overtaken by events, i.e. the government will eventually be unable to borrow money at sustainable interest rates, forcing radical reform of entitlement benefits, spending cuts and/or dramatic tax increases.

Our problems are not the result of gridlock or our venal politicians, but our own desire to live beyond our means, using other people’s money to do so. The results of such self-indulgence are on display in Greece and Spain, and will soon be seen elsewhere in the core of Europe. At home, our political standoff is a mere symptom of a potentially fatal disease.







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2 Responses to In Praise of Political Gridlock

  1. George S. Karavitis says:

    Of course gridlock is also intentionally designed into our system of government because the founders feared the potential tyranny of democratic majorities almost as much as the tryanny of kings. Consequently a high degree of consensus is required for most governmental actions. When government is gridlocked and cannot act, it generally rebounds to the benefit of individual liberty.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Hi George,
      Thanks for the comment, with which I completely agree. The founders were extraordinary well-educated and wise men. Unfortunately, even they could not forsee the rise of our massive entitlement programs, and the dangers they pose to our financial stability and even to our liberty. Gridlock is better than more spending still, but a return to the principles on which this nation was founded is the only real solution.

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