Is Government Really Broken?

Cary Coglianese, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

1 J. L. & Pub. Aff. 65 (2016)


The widespread public angst that surfaced around the 2016 presidential election in the United States revealed that many Americans believe their government has become badly broken. Given the serious problems that continue to persist in society—crime, illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, discrimination, and more—these beliefs in a government breakdown are understandable. Yet a breakdown is actually far from self-evident. In this paper, I explain how diagnoses of governmental performance depend on the perspective from which current conditions in the country are viewed. Certainly when judged against a standard of perfection, America has a long way to go. But perfection is no meaningful basis upon which to conclude government has broken down. I offer and assess three alternative, more realistic benchmarks of government’s performance: (1) reliance on a standard of acceptable imperfection; (2) comparisons with other countries or other time periods; and (3) the use of counterfactual inferences. Viewed against these perspectives, the notion of an irreparable governmental failure in the United States becomes quite questionable. Although serious economic and social shortcomings remain, the nation’s strong economy and steadily improving living conditions simply could not have occurred if government were significantly broken. Rather than embracing despair, citizens and their leaders would do better to treat the nation’s problems as conditions of disrepair. Rather than giving in to cynicism and resignation, they should remain committed to the constant struggle that is inherent in democratic governance. It still remains possible to achieve a stronger democracy, a more just rule of law, and better economic and social conditions for all—but only if members of the public do not give up.