HomeArticlesGovernmentProblems of Feedback in U.S. Governance, the widespread political denial of principle


Problems of Feedback in U.S. Governance, the widespread political denial of principle — 6 Comments

  1. Law changes slowly, because it is desirable for law to be stable. Responsiveness to feedback is actually undesirable, as well as difficult. You don’t want laws against assault to be softened if there are too many assaults. Bureaucracies are creatures of law, and are therefore top-down and unresponsive.

    Private, free economies that operate on the basis of voluntary exchange are responsive by nature. This is also highly desirable.

    The problem is that we should not be trying to do things that require responsiveness through politics (law). As you rightly point out, it is a recipe for failure.


    • Don, I get your point about the responsiveness of law. You are primarily referring to the issue of the arbitrary laws being passed by responsiveness to special interest pressure. This is obviously not the type of feedback I was referring to. Rather, for laws I was referring to principled feedback learned from historical lessons. For example, feedback learned from centuries of home mortgage lending would have provided the law writers with principled boundaries their mortgage-bubble legislation ignored. Thus it is not feedback from spontaneous pressure that we want, but feedback from sound principles. In that case the pace of law would change more slowly, and the system would become more stable.

      But, I was also talking about feedback in government agencies from the world they are supposed to serve, and why and how departments like the State Department and the FBI have had failures of gross negligence from ignoring this feedback; and, why it is the nature of these agencies to ignore it.

  2. Thanks Gordon. Well-stated. Brief comment: De Toqueville’s first volume of Democracy in America was in part an effort to understand why the American Revolution seemed to work, resulting in relative stability, whereas the Frence Revolution gave rise to one disaster after the other for 40 years. He argued that this was due not only to voluntary associations and civil society institutions, but to religion and a pervasive ethos rooted in moral principles. Feedback is not entirely independent of the quality of the character of “the people”.

    • Good point Tom. I would have to consider that as “positive feedback”–meaning a cultural basis for creating ways to serve the public interest better. Whereas, limits of constraint on government behavior would be largely “negative feedback,” designed to prevent government from going off a cliff.

      • Many have lamented the difficulty in generating and sustaining what you call “positive feedback”, e.g., today’s WSJ opinion on Donald Kagan, retiring at 80 from classics at Yale. Democracies rise on some foundation of public virtue that sustains the res publica during a golden age but over time decline sets in and the corrupted popular will. the demos, cheers on its own demise. Your call for giving attention to positive feedback is well taken, but it may become an increasingly scarce resource

        • Plato explained 9 reasons why democracies fail, and we are experiencing many of them. Aristotle and Jefferson thought only agricultural societies, where each person was self-sufficient, could support democracies. More recently, scholars like Jean Bethke Elshtain have argued that Protestant teachings that inculcated self-responsibility allowed Western Democracies to rise.

          One reason I use the language of engineering and feedback (besides the fact that I also have an engineering degree) is that these terms often better transcend religious and cultural differences and we need to find post-modern modes of communication to discuss issues like “virtue” and “civility” that often get relativized away as the “philosophy of dead white men,” rather than as something essential for a society to function.

          Societies are systems, and many of the terms related to the design of systems apply to societies as well. I think these terms transcend the political rhetoric we hear in the popular media, as well as the relativism ascribed to inherited values. When we can analyze society as a system, we can make a determination as to whether a particular value or behavior has a positive or negative effect on the system.

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