How to (really) fix the political system

Most efforts at reform ignore the crux of the matter, concentrating instead on electoral mechanics.

October 25, 2006 19:40
4 minute read.
How to (really) fix the political system

cabinet 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The post-Lebanon II ferment has resulted in many efforts to improve our dysfunctional system of government. This system comprises a huge government that controls a great concentration of economic and political power by offering endless opportunities for political handouts. This exacerbates political competition and radicalization, increases waste and corruption, and leads to instability and inefficiency. It selects and empowers a negative type of politician. It is behind the many failures of our governments, Left and Right, and is the reason why Israelis have become social and economic cripples. But predictably, most efforts at reform ignore this central reason and deal exclusively with the mechanics of the electoral system. As if some perfect system exists somewhere and it is only a matter of adopting or adapting it, and presto, all of our grave problems will vanish. Few of our opinion-molders and decision-makers remark that under all systems, even the best, Western democracies are struggling with serious problems of governance. These have become increasingly severe since distributive policies have become "democratized" by the immense growth of the welfare state. Politicians felt obliged to buy the favor not only of small and focused vested interest groups, at relatively low cost, but have had to curry favor from wide constituencies at the huge cost of many entitlements. The chief result was exponential growth of government. Governments have become huge, consuming 60 percent of GNP and employing every third person. They are burdened with many conflicting tasks and impossible missions, so they fail to fulfill their promise. In addition, they invite the creation of many pressure groups that harm the economy, while fomenting conflict and instability and finally causing governments to collapse. GOVERNMENT SIZE then, and the distributive politics that engender it, are the basic cause for democratic instability. It is especially grave in Israel, because its governments wield the biggest, most concentrated power imaginable. They control, in partnership with a small oligarchy, most resources, sponsor rapacious monopolies and inhibit competition and efficiency through excessive regulation. Government is choking Israel to death. Yet most reform-minded activists seem to believe that Israel's major problem is the instability of the present parliamentary system and the resulting inability of governments to govern effectively because they lack adequate power to do so. Lack power to govern? Israeli governments requisition half of our working life incomes in excessive taxes to fund their wasteful habits. They do as they please with our lives, often in diametrical opposition to what they undertook to do before they were elected (Ariel Sharon's disengagement was just one of may policies, such as the Oslo agreements, that were executed contrary to former undertakings). As Prof. Elia Leibowitz argued in a recent Haaretz op-ed, "Israeli governments... have always ruled high-handedly…[they] have conducted wars, overseen withdrawals... [they] imposed a socialist economy… An infinite number of decisions, actions, orders and regulations have been carried out in every facet of life…" - mostly, one must add, with miserable results. Do we really need more of the same? It is astounding to find such truly liberal public figures as Amnon Rubinstein, Uriel Reichman and Gideon Doron, thoughtful, learned people, ignoring their own hard-earned experiences and pushing for a stronger government without first making sure that it is a limited and manageable government. After the original Shinui Party focused on electoral reform in the 1970s, it carefully fashioned, after consulting local and international experts, a foolproof system for its internal elections. It was supposed to be the most democratically sophisticated system, not given to manipulation. But when put to practice, a cabal between Shmuel Tamir and a minor Druse faction managed to capture top positions in the party's list. So much for foolproof systems. Asked what would happen if a most unsuitable candidate somehow got elected as president and inflicted severe harm on Israel but could not be replaced, according to the system he proposed, Prof. Gideon Doron, while acknowledging the danger, averred that "[t]he benefits of the system outweigh its risks." What pundits seem to ignore is that our governments are dysfunctional not because they have too little power but because they have excessive power. They also have excessive ambition to govern and to legislate every facet of our life (such excess is also behind the collapse of our legal system). It is this excess, paradoxically, that makes the system ungovernable. There is no entity in the world, not even a well managed corporate entity that can undertake the many tasks undertaken by Israeli governments and manage to execute them well. So for starters let our would-be reformers cut the excessive size of government. Everyone knows that many government ministries do more harm than good, and that the remaining ones could greatly benefit from streamlining and tightening. We all know of the huge waste involved in government and its many inefficiencies. Cut, cut and cut. Until this is done, all reform efforts can be compared to the effort of devising a perfect braking system for a mini passenger vehicle and then trying to fit it on a 20 ton truck. It simply won't work. The writer is president of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.

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