The importance of independent agencies: political capital and Covid-19
Politicians have limited amounts of political capital but an independent agency can have its own political capital. An example would be the Fed's ability to pursue monetary policies that are unpopular
In Britain, the National Health Service is in crisis, in part because the Conservatives have been cutting the budget since they gained power in 2010:
The NHS was setup in 1949 and for several decades poll after poll has shown it is one of the things that the British are most proud of. Likewise, one of the main reasons why people voted in favor of Brexit, in 2016, was the idea that freedom from the EU would mean more money for the NHS. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings pushed this idea hard, making the specific claim that leaving the EU would free up an additional $350 million pounds, every week, for the NHS. Famously, they had this slogan painted on the side of a bus which was driven all over Britain. They were aware that the claim was untrue, and they renounced the claim the night that Brexit won.
Can we imagine a society where the medical system can be protected from political meddling? Maybe partly? Maybe for a few years?
I cannot think of anything that would completely protect any institution from democratic forces, for 13 years, other than ending democracy itself. Clearly, if the public wants a great medical system, paid for by the government, then the public should not, for 13 years in a row, elect a political party that is focused on austerity. Even independent institutions will be influenced by the majority if the majority is in power for 13 straight years.
All the same, independence can help, especially if we include independent tax power.
In other essays we've talked about the independence of the courts and the independence of the central banks and how those two institutions offer examples of the kind of independence we should want to foster for all aspects of the different functions of the government:
1. is the tax collection agency being used to punish political dissidents? The answer is greater independence for the tax collection agency.
2. is the justice department being used to punish political dissidents? The answer is greater independence for the justice department.
3. is the census bureau being used to punish specific races or religions? The answer is greater independence for the census bureau.
4. is gerrymandering being used to punish specific geographic regions? The answer is greater independence for the agency that draws the voting maps.
5. is infrastructure investment being targeted to specific politically favored regions? The answer is greater independence for the agency that decides where to invest infrastructure investment.
This would clearly also work for the NHS. We should want the medical system to be as independent as possible from political tampering. But this has to involve funding, because a need for funding is an easy way to undermine the independence of any institution. Rather than having all funding approved by a central legislature, paid out of a unified budget, the medical system would need to have some independent taxing authority.
That would be enough to protect the NHS for a few years of Tory rule. But of course, if we assume that Parliament is appointing at least some of the leadership of the NHS, then, no matter how independent it is setup to be, after 13 years of Tory government, we should assume the NHS will take on a Tory mindset. And yet, even if that is true, the more independent an institution is, the more it tends to remain on mission. Again, the independence of the organization can be increased by increasing the amount of time that appointees serve on its leadership council or Board Of Directors. As we noted before, in the USA they appoint Federal judges for life, so as to maximize their independence. In Britain, they appoint the judges to the High Court for 18 years, in an effort to balance accountability and independence. We should think in terms of very long terms for appointees, if we want an institution to be truly independent.
What is the opposite of such independence?
The more that health policy has to rely on the individual behavior of legislators, the more we should assume that health policy will be as mediocre as the legislators have time to focus on it, an amount of time that must always be finite. Merely electing the right people won’t help the situation. While electing the Tories for 13 straight years is likely to do unnecessary harm to the health system, it’s also true that electing progressives is not enough to ensure good policy. History teaches us that true independence of institutions leads to better results than electing “the right people.”
“Elect the right people” is a weak strategy, especially for progressive politics. Even if we were able to elect angels, they would still have a finite amount of political capital, a finite amount of time, a finite amount of energy. If they were to try to “do the right thing” on every one of a thousand different issues, they would quickly be exhausted and too worn down to be effective. It is better to have specialized institutions, with focused goals, independent sources of funding, and appointees on the Board Of Directors serving terms long enough to ensure their independence.
Any society is vulnerable to an occasional populist wave which brings in a majority that controls the government and which ignores the experts, breaks the rules, makes a mockery of established processes, and wages war against science. We already looked at the damage done to democracy in Hungary because of the populist wave that hit that country back in 2010.
At best, when a society has such a government, the best that can be hoped for is that all of the major institutions have been set up as independent institutions that will be able to resist that populist wave for a few years, in the hopes that the populist wave will end before the institution is overrun with the contamination of appointees from the populist government.
Even when progressives are in the majority, how often will they be able to impose their will on their reactionary colleagues? Clearly it can be done, but it has some cost, and it draws a reaction. Legislators are humans and have human emotions, and some are ready to lash out at any rule or decision that they dislike or disagree with. The point is, there is a cost to imposing any decision, so, as much as possible, decisions should be handed off to some independent institutions. This is, after all, exactly the reason why the Fed is independent: it is assumed that Congress would never have the guts to impose a recession on America, so if we are going to fight inflation, the institution that fights inflation needs to be independent of Congress.
Julia Doubleday has a great essay titled “Zero Masks on the House Floor is the Ultimate Republican Victory.” She writes:
COVID is still the third leading cause of death in the US, as it has been since 2020, and the majority of people dying now are vaccinated. U.S. life expectancy dropped precipitously for the third year in a row, wiping 24 years of hard-won public health improvements off the board and returning us handily to 1996 levels. You can be forgiven for not knowing any of this; despite the Squad’s constant presence on social media, they are too busy talking about everything from Republican chaos to their skincare routines to spare an Instagram story for the dead and dying public. They also apparently think masks are just so 2020; from AOC, to Bowman, to Casar, to Lee, it’s masks off and middle fingers up to the disabled comrades and allies who continue to beg for basic precautions.
…The progressives’ lack of concern is upsetting; their lack of awareness is disturbing. Do they even know that COVID is gaining ground again? Does anyone on their staff bother to update them about the disease that’s killed 700,000 Americans since Biden took office? Since 2015, I’ve worked on progressive Democratic campaigns, losing sleep and sacrificing years to push for change within the party. Now I see what all our hard work has wrought: a bunch of feckless followers with no more backbone to stand up to Biden’s murderous non-response than their big-money establishment opponents.
Written this way, the issue of masks sounds like a moral one. Perhaps it is moral, but it’s also true that relying on individuals, instead of institutions, is an inherently weak strategy. To enforce masks on Congress, there are two approaches that would be stronger than relying merely on moral suasion:
The CDC or NIH could be empowered to set health rules for all government buildings. These rules could be binding on everyone, including legislators. And both the CDC and NIH can be set up with a Board Of Directors to which Congress can appoint someone every year, for a long term (perhaps 18 years). The organizations would thus be independent and would have a staggered schedule of appointments, such that a populist government cannot quickly impose its will on the organization.
A Department of Decorum could be empowered to set the rules for all government employees, including all legislators. This would take on the tasks previously overseen by the Ethics committees, but a Department of Decorum could be fully independent. Among its many responsibilities, it could have the power to declare that endangering each other’s health is an ethics violation.
Julia Doubleday also wrote:
That’s why it’s disappointing that so-called socialists apparently consider pandemic safety a matter of individual responsibility and the right of disabled people to be in public a privilege that can be rescinded.
If it is a bad idea for us to consider the Covid-19 pandemic a matter of individual responsibility, we should also seek to limit how much it is the individual responsibility of legislators. While they have an obligation to demonstrate leadership, they cannot possibly demonstrate leadership on all issues simultaneously.
But isn’t populism the truest form of democracy?
There is a school of thought that suggests that the political system should allow the current majority to do whatever it wants to do. If the current majority hates rich people, and wants to seize all of their money, then the current majority should be free to do so. Likewise, if the current majority hates all Jews, and wants to pass laws limiting their influence over society, the majority should be free to do so. And if the current majority feels that black people are dangerous and commit crimes then the current majority should feel free to violate people’s civil rights in the interest of fighting crime.
But what is the appropriate goal of a political system? If the goal is good government, then we know the current majority is the worst possible group to empower. If we want accountability, then we should want majority rule, but that majority might have been a majority formed over time. We’ve already looked at long, staggered terms as being a way of putting together an effective government. We’ve also looked at the long-term majority as being the only group that should have the power to amend the constitution.
Centuries ago, Plato suggested that politics moves in an endless cycle:
As Plato said, populist leaders are able to convince the majority that the rules and laws and customs and institutions of society are all designed to oppress the majority and therefore should be destroyed. And if the populist leader is successful in getting the majority angry about their so-called oppression, then the angry majority will overthrow the law and the the populist leader will be able to set themselves up as a tyrant. When they die, they might be able to get one of their children to take over as their successor, and should such transfers of power happen a few times, then with the passage of time the rule by this one family will take on the patina of respectability and therefore become a monarchy, until an incompetent monarch should so enrage the public that they rise in rebellion against such a government, and then having overthrown their monarch, they establish a democracy, thus starting the cycle over again.
In short, deference to the long-term majority is likely to give us stable laws, accountable institutions, carefully considered changes to the constitution, respect for custom, and the rule of law. By contrast, giving in to the populist rage of the current majority is a danger to accountability and the rule of law.
As a practical matter, what does it look like when a populist leader gains power and is able to take over the institutions? A recent example from Florida:
New College of Florida has a reputation for being the most progressive public college in the state. X González — a survivor of the Parkland school shooting who, as Emma González, became a prominent gun control activist — recently wrote of their alma mater, “In the queer space of New College, changing your pronouns, name or presentation is a nonevent.” In The Princeton Review’s ranking of the best public colleges and universities for “making an impact” — measured by things like student engagement, community service and sustainability efforts — New College comes in third.
Naturally, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida wants to demolish it, at least as it currently exists. On Friday, he announced six new appointments to New College’s 13-member board of trustees, including Chris Rufo, who orchestrated the right’s attack on critical race theory, and Matthew Spalding, a professor and dean at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan with close ties to Donald Trump. (A seventh member will soon be appointed by Florida’s Board of Governors, which is full of DeSantis allies.)
Why is a single governor able to appoint 6 people in a single year? Why is a single leader allowed to appoint the majority of the Board of Trustees?
Imagine instead that the college had a Board of Trustees of 18 people, with one person appointed each year, for a term of 18 years. In that situation, Governor DeSantis, serving as Florida governor for 8 years, would be able to appoint 8 of the trustees, over the course of 8 years. It is completely reasonable for a popular governor to be able to have a major impact in shaping the future of a Florida institution. But no one governor should be allowed to appoint the majority of trustees. Rather, that majority should be something that accumulates over the long-term.
How do we know that independent institutions work better than individual efforts?
Paul Krugman once wrote a weblog post titled “Why Does Regulation Work?”
In the various responses to my posts on libertarianism, here and here, some commenters have made a point that sounds reasonable, but actually isn’t. I pointed out that the libertarian alternative to regulation — just use tort law to make people pay for the damage they cause — doesn’t work in practice, because when push comes to shove politicians will shield the rich and powerful from paying the real cost. Commenters say, but isn’t that an equally strong reason to believe that regulation won’t work either?
Well, here’s the thing: regulation demonstrably does work where tort law doesn’t. Consider the environmental issue: in reality, the perpetrators of oil spills never pay most of the cost; but in reality, environmental regulation has led to much cleaner air and water. (Look up the history of Los Angeles smog or the fate of Lake Erie if you don’t believe me.)
So why does regulation work? If polluters can buy off the system ex post, after a disaster, why don’t they manage to totally corrupt regulation ex ante? There’s a lot to say about that, and I’m sure there’s a literature I haven’t read. But one thing we tend to forget in this age of Reagan is the importance and virtues of a dedicated bureaucracy: when you have professional government agencies with a job to do, and treat them with respect, that job often gets done.
That argument also applies to issues such as enforcing mask mandates. The more that such decisions can be given to specialized, focused agencies, which have the power to enforce their rules, and are overseen by some kind of committee or Board Of Directors that is setup to maximize its independence, then we can get results that are far more effective than simply relying on moral suasion to influence exhausted, mortal humans who are overwhelmed with the demands from a thousand factions screaming about a thousand important issues. Individual legislators won’t always have the time or energy to force their colleagues to do the right thing, but an independent institution can enforce such rules, with the justification that enforcing such rules is its entire raison d'etre.