Most Americans have a high level of national pride but view government as imperfect and efforts to reform it as patriotic. The Constitution offers a clear roadmap for changing the laws and institutions by which we all live. However, its multiple barriers to change, including separate levels of government, separate branches of government, and a difficult amendment process, combine with collective action problems to ensure that radical deviations from the status quo are rarely made. These barriers to reform were intentionally built into our system to slow the pace of radical and potentially unwise change.
American politics is rife with collective action problems like the prisoner’s dilemma. Groups seeking reform must settle on a single proposed solution, a dilemma in itself. Once the fight is joined, collective action problems pose further obstacles to organizing a movement, assembling a broad coalition, and winning in the multiple political arenas that have authority over the structure of government.
The individuals and groups at the heart of many successful reform movements were motivated more by a sense of moral purpose than they were by the monetary or other “instrumental” benefits of achieving their goals. American history offers many examples where reformers beat the odds and changed the status quo. Many of these reforms, including women’s suffrage, were tried first in individual states and later exported to the national level.
Even when successful, reforms can have unintended consequences. This chapter suggests several principles of institutional design that have helped move the American system toward a more perfect union. It focuses on four areas of reform in response to collective action problems: direct primaries as a solution to political parties’ coordination problems, term limits as a solution to a prisoner’s dilemma faced by voters, efforts to stop free rider problems in voter turnout, and attempts to keep the federal budget from turning into a tragedy of the commons. These cases demonstrate the trade-offs between solving an old problem and creating a new one as well as the strategic dilemmas faced by political actors who care both about reforming the political process and about advancing their own policy goals and political careers. They help us see how reform ideas are worth considering, debating, and sometimes putting into practice.
- What are some basic principles of institutional design that have been used by the Framers and others to ensure that the interests of those who make political decisions are aligned with those affected by them?
- What are the benefits of making the Constitution difficult to change? What are the disadvantages? Do these rules enhance or inhibit democracy?
- What collective action problems do political parties and voters face in elections where multiple candidates from each party are running? How are these problems addressed by the implementation of direct primaries? Are there any disadvantages to primaries?
- Why do many reforms, such as campaign finance laws, fail to work as intended?
- Is there a particular institution, law, or policy in American politics that currently is in desperate need of reform? What solutions or reforms would you propose to deal with this problem? Is your solution realistic politically?
- What role can individuals play in efforts to reform American laws and institutions? What are the benefits of engaging in political activity—be it voting, donating to, or working for a candidate or party? Do such activities ever pay off?
- What are some potential unintended consequences of giving the president a line-item veto? Can you think of another example of the tragedy of the commons?
- Since Americans generally believe that the United States is the most successful democracy in history, why are there so many movements to reform it?
- How does the power given to states in the U.S. federal system allow them to experiment with reforms, and how likely is it that successful innovations will spread to the national government?
- Can citizens trust elected officials—who by definition have been winners at the game of politics—to set its rules in a way that will be fair to all players?