Saturday, January 1, 2011

Starting the Year with Pessimism

I have been watching season 3 of The Wire for the past couple of days, trying to make some progress on my resolution from last year.  I am halfway in the eighth episode, and it is very clear that this year's theme is all about the challenges of reform.  This gives me the excuse to re-run my favorite quote for any political theorist for all time:
"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him half-heartedly, so that between them he runs great danger."  Previously quoted here.
Machiavelli was just incredibly smart to see this so clearly, but his focus on the passion involved downplays a key component of path dependence--institutions.  That certain outcomes exist and then become more entrenched not just because they have passionate defenders and ambivalent challengers but because the rules empower those who favor the status quo.  The rules of the Senate allow individuals to put holds onto appointments and minorities to hold up bills and treaties via filibusters.  Of course, these rules could be changed, but that would require even more passion and interests than the actual legislation at hand because such reforms would alter how to play the game.  The uncertainties of the potential new game are enough to deter those who would otherwise seek to change the rules for today. 

So, of course, who am I really frustrated by?  Those on the left who see Obama as selling them out, rather than getting as good a deal as one could possibly expect.  I already have low expectations for the folks on the right.

No comments: