Monday, April 11, 2016

America's Bloated Government

A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption
By Jay Cost

Overview of the Book by

After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s response: “A Republic—if you can keep it.”

This book argues: we couldn’t keep it.

A true republic privileges the common interest above the special interests. To do this, our Constitution established an elaborate system of checks and balances that separates power among the branches of government, and places them in conflict with one another. The Framers believed that this would keep grasping, covetous factions from acquiring enough power to dominate government. Instead, only the people would rule.

Proper institutional design is essential to this system. Each branch must manage responsibly the powers it is granted, as well as rebuke the other branches when they go astray. This is where subsequent generations have run into trouble: we have overloaded our government with more power than it can handle. The Constitution's checks and balances have broken down because the institutions created in 1787 cannot exercise responsibly the powers of our sprawling, immense twenty-first century government.

The result is the triumph of special interests over the common interest. James Madison called this factionalism. We know it as political corruption.

Corruption today is so widespread that our government is not so much a republic, but rather a special interest democracy. Everybody may participate, yes, but the contours of public policy depend not so much on the common good, but rather the push-and-pull of the various interest groups encamped in Washington, DC.

Top Customer Review

3 Stars
Corruption vs. the Constitution
By Paul Dueweke on February 13, 2015

Jay Cost is one of the best writers I have read. He is clear and concise and obviously has done his homework. The book he has created not only holds the readers' interest, it channels them toward conclusions with evidence and logic. So if Cost is so great, why only three stars? In spite of excellent writing and a serious approach, the book has some major flaws. Let's look at the good stuff first.


The Introduction is a precise tour through his rationale for the thesis of this book: "the growth of governmental power beyond its initial boundaries, without corresponding shifts in its institutions, has altered the original design of the constitutional system ... In other words, it creates the opportunity for corruption."

The first eight chapters provide a thorough, compressed history of how Cost's four principle themes support the relentlessly growing corruption up to the end of World War II. These four themes are: 1) an incompetent Congress, in the sense of not having the institutional structure or power to control the forces of the growing bureaucracy and its attendant corruption, 2) a denuded republican principle that invited corruption, 3) a partisanized presidency resulting from the popular election of the president, and 4) the explosion of ad hoc institutions created by the complex laws passed by Congress and the inability of Congress to oversee them.

I found Chapter Eight most revealing. Jay Cost describes the history of how factionalism became a necessity of politicians in general, but the president in particular, in large part due to what he calls the democratization of the presidential election. In other words, the opening up of the election to the general voters instead of adhering to state-chosen electors as specified in the Constitution.

Chapters Nine through Thirteen take readers through the staggering maze of the modern American bureaucracy. In Chapter Nine, the multi-level system of subsidies to farmers, mostly to large corporate farmers, illustrates the direct-subsidy corruption. Chapter Ten is no kinder of an analysis of pork-barrel projects. Chapters Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen highlight the vast corruption in Medicare and entitlements, corporate taxation, and Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. The details of how these systems evolved provide a fresh and comprehensive level of understanding of just how overwhelming the corruption has become in the Federal Government.


Jay Cost has made some fundamental philosophical errors in defining the problem of corruption and has left out the reality of the Constitution. This has corrupted his conclusions even though his definition and discussion of the history and extent of our modern Government corruption is excellent and highly educational.

The Problem of Government Size

In the book's Conclusion, Cost says, "As we have noted at many points, our objection is not with these governmental powers per se, but rather with the aggrandizement of power without a revision of the structure."
The author is clear on this throughout the book. The problem is not that Government has become so colossal, but simply that Congress has not evolved with Government growth to properly administer it. The ratifiers of the Constitution would differ with him on that. The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the U.S. Constitution all made limitation of government power the main event.

Cost maintains that Government is corrupt because it is not controllable by the institution of Congress because Government has outgrown Congress. The reality is that Government is corrupt because it is largely in violation of the Constitution as it was written and clearly in violation of the assurances made by the Federalists to the anti-Federalists about so many legal issues that the anti-Federalists were concerned about during ratification.

In Robert Natelsons excellent book, "The Original Constitution," he writes:
"During the ratification debates advocates of the Constitution publicly listed examples of activities over which the federal government would have no authority. They did so to inform and reassure Ratifiers and members of the general public about the limited scope of federal power. Among the activities listed as within the exclusive sphere of the states were marriage, divorce, and other aspects of domestic relations; manufacturing (necessarily including labor relations); other business enterprises; agriculture and other land use; land titles and conveyancing; property outside of interstate trade; commerce wholly within state lines; state and local government; the regulation of most crimes and civil suits; social services; training the militia and appointing militia officers; religion; and education."

We see in this list the Federalists' promises that the Federal Government would never contain: a Department of Labor, a Small Business Administration, a Department of Agriculture, a Department of the Interior, a Department of Commerce, a Department of Housing and Urban Development, a Department of Health and Human Services, a Department of Education, and probably over a hundred other agencies.

The U.S. Constitution would not have been ratified without these assurances by the Federalists about the actual meanings of many of the constitution's clauses. Invariably those concerns were about the constitution being interpreted to give too much power to the central government or deny it to the states and the people. The Federalists responded by promising that the Anti-Federalists' suspicions of too much power to the central government would never happen, using arguments that stressed the established social and legal traditions and the clear meanings of the words used. Nine of thirteen states ratified the Constitution on condition of those Federalist assurances. Size and power of Government is critical to the U.S. Constitution and to the foundational principles of America.

The Living Constitution

The modern, progressive doctrine that the Constitution is a "living document" that can be interpreted in terms of modern political reality dominates the American jurisprudence system. This doctrine has been championed because of the politicization of the Supreme Court (or maybe vice versa). This is probably the main reason that the Court has defended the growth of Government. Cost blames so much of our corruption on the politicization of the presidency but mentions the living constitution only once briefly in passing in the Introduction. Given that all of this Government growth has been endorsed by the Supreme Court,it is hardly reasonable to call special attention to the politicization of the presidency without doing the same for the Supreme Court.


In Jay Cost's Conclusion, he writes:

"Could not disinterested liberals and conservatives put aside temporarily their eternal war, for instance, on the top marginal tax rate to focus on cleaning out the corruption in the corporate tax code? How about suspending temporarily their disagreements about food stamps, and in general the interminable debate about social welfare for the poor, to cut flagrant corporate welfare from the farm bill?"

Does Cost think that making temporary peace between conservatives and progressives over a few issues will really solve anything? This is why it matters how you frame the basic problem. If the problem is that Congress has not evolved with Government, maybe Cost's proposal has merit. But if the problem is that Government is too big PERIOD, his proposal is just another "let's all get along" arrow that falls short of the target.

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Brief Biography of Jay Cost

Jay Cost has been a top political analyst for nearly a decade. He currently writes MORNING JAY for The Weekly Standard. He got his start with his simple, no-frills "Horse Race Blog" in September, 2004 because he was sick and tired of the inane media coverage of the Bush-Kerry contest. With his data-driven approach to the election, he was consistently ahead of the curve, and by the end of the campaign season his blog was drawing thousands of readers a day.

In 2005 he began working for the premier political website RealClearPolitics, where his audience reached into the hundreds of thousands. It was there that he again was ahead of the curve covering the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, predicting earlier than anybody else that Obama would be a real challenge to Clinton, then later sensing accurately that Clinton was down but not out. Today, he writes a twice-weekly column for the top conservative opinion journal The Weekly Standard.

Jay received a B.A. with High Distinction in Government from the University of Virginia, and later an M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago, where he is currently working towards his Ph.D. His approach to politics is an unusual blend of scholarly grounding, statistical know-how, and good old common sense.

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