Derek Bok

The Trouble with Government, Part I

VTR Date: December 7, 2000

Guest: Bok, Derek


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Derek Bok
Title: “The Trouble With Government”, Part I
VTR: 12/7/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as I always find some personal delight in relating past to present, I am quite intrigued with the fact that the last time a former President of Harvard University joined me here our Open Mind subject was “What’s Right About American Education?”.

That was November 1958, and my guest was Harvard’s distinguished President Emeritus, James B. Conant. Today our subject is “The Trouble With Government”. And our guest is Harvard’s distinguished President Emeritus, Derek Bok, former Dean of the University’s Law School and the author now of an absolutely extraordinary book by that title, “The Trouble With Government” published by the Harvard University Press. Well, now today as in generations past, surely the most frequently quoted analysis of democracy in America remains the young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 19th century study.

Yet as the editor nearly fifty years ago of its first abridged paperback edition, let me predict that in time Derek Bok’s “The Trouble With Government” will surpass even Tocqueville as the most perspicacious and compelling guide to important aspects of American life. Not as prophecy, perhaps, but surely as analysis. For in “The Trouble With Government” Derek Bok reminds us of Ronald Reagan’s oft quoted Inaugural proclamation that “Government is the not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem”. And of Bill Clinton’s rejoinder years later, “Government isn’t the solution, yet it isn’t the problem, either”.

My guest’s own conclusion: as he had put it in his earlier study, the State of the nation is that “President Reagan was only half right. As he correctly perceived government is the problem in the United States. But government must also be the solution”. Which, of course, is my cue to ask Derek Bok just what the means, and of course, to ask “what is the trouble with government?”.

BOK: [Laughter]


BOK: Well, starting with your first question, “what does it mean that government has to be the solution?”. If you look at what Americans think about their society, despite differences about methods, there’s a remarkable unanimity about what the goals of our society ought to be. And as you look at those goals, it’s impossible to find any country of the world that has come close to achieving them without the government playing a very, very substantial role in the process. That’s true of health care, it’s true of safety on the streets, it’s true of so many other things that Americans consider important. And so I would guess, based on that experience, if we are to achieve the society that we want, government will have to continue to be the solution as it has been for all successful societies up until now.

HEFFNER: But you seem to point out that “a” trouble …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … if not “the” trouble, but maybe it is “the” trouble is that while we want government to do so many things, while there are so many things we want that government alone can do, we also protest, as Reagan did, as so many others do … government is the problem.

BOK: Yes, and tried to spend a lot of time to figure out whether this judgment was fair. And I think it probably is a little extreme. That is, America’s disappointment with government, because in reality over the last thirty or forty years our society has made progress toward the goals that Americans hold dear in a remarkably high proportion of the cases. And in almost all of those cases the government has played a substantial and positive role. Unfortunately, if you compare our progress with that of other leading democracies, you find that though we have progressed, we haven’t progressed as fast as most of these other democracies in a very disturbing number of cases. And you can help thinking when you look at problems such as the fact that our health care system is the most expensive by far in the world, and yet it’s the only one among advanced democracies that doesn’t cover millions, millions of citizens. As you look at those kinds of problems, you can’t help feeing that the government has not been performing as well as it might or should.

HEFFNER: But mightn’t the answer to that be that indeed the trouble is government has not been permitted by the propaganda of those who keep insisting that the government is the problem. Government in this country hasn’t been permitted to do what government has done in that particular area of health care in so many other countries, and so many other democracies.

BOK: Well, it’s true that Americans are quite divided about what to do about health care even though they are very united on what the ultimate goals ought to be. But we had difficulties in, in achieving what we wanted through government even at a time in the fifties and sixties when government was looked at much more positively than it is today. So, even when the atmosphere’s been much more favorable, we’ve still run into problems, we still haven’t been able to achieve things that some other governments have been able to achieve that Americans would really like to have.
HEFFNER: Well, then the question has to be “why?”

BOK: Why?

HEFFNER: Or, “why not?”.

BOK: Yes. Well, there are a large number of reasons for that. One of the ones that I spent a lot of time on, however, is the disturbing fact that although Americans want to have more and more influence over their government, they’re willing to spend less and less time at the work of being informed and participating citizens. And, contrary to a number of people, the more I looked at it, the more I came to the conclusion that the apathy that Americans have been displaying for the last thirty years or so really has a lot to do with many of the things that we dislike the most about the way government and politics perform in this country.

HEFFNER: So that the fault, dear Brutus …

BOK: [Laughter}

HEFFNER: … lies …

BOK: Not in the starts, but in ourselves.

HEFFNER: And, what do you do with that? What do you do with it in terms of your own sense of hope or despair?

BOK: Well, before I despair, I look at some other things which I think are helpful. One is, of course, that there are other governments where people aren’t very different from ourselves. Where the citizens are much more active in their government. They vote much more, they’re more participating, they’re more informed. I look at periods in the past where Americans have been much more inclined at least to cast a ballot at election time than they are today. And some of those times were not so very long ago. And I look at places in this country where citizens are far more active and participating than they are in the country as a whole. And if they can be active and participating there, I don’t see why it’s impossible for them to be more active and participating in the country as a whole.

HEFFNER: And your analysis of why it’s yes in some places, but no in most other places in this country?

BOK: Well, it’s, it’s a difference in some cases of education. It’s a difference in how seriously civic education is taken in the public schools. It’s a difference in all kinds of intangible cultural factors about the obligations one has in a democratic society towards one’s government. But most of those things are things that can be worked at by conscious effort. And what disturbs me is that if you look at what’s gone on in America over the last thirty or forty years the effort that we put into trying to develop really concerned, informed participating citizens has pretty steadily gone down. For example, civic education used to receive considerably more emphasis than it does today. It’s been eclipsed almost entirely in the public schools by an emphasis on training the workforce for the next century. Which is certainly an important endeavor, but not to the point that it obscures the role of the public schools in preparing citizens. Colleges, including Harvard, I regret to say, which used to regard the preparation of active, informed citizens as the most important goal of liberal education now scarcely mention that as an explicit aim of undergraduate education. Newspapers are devoting less time and space and attention to public affairs. So throughout the society there’s been a, a real lag of energy and effort going into this, this very crucial task of, of teaching people that they really have an obligation as citizens if they expect democracy to work and live up to their, their hopes and ideals.

HEFFNER: Then why don’t you at the end of “The Trouble With Government” simply throw up your hands in despair?

BOK: Oh, because I think all sorts of these points that I’ve just made could easily be reversed as a matter of public policy. We could put much more emphasis in the schools on civic education and a better kind of civic education that we’ve had in the past. There’s no reason why colleges can’t begin to pay explicit attention to the role of liberal education in preparing citizens. And more and more colleges are now waking up to the fact that they need to do that. We could spend much more money on public affairs programming than we do. We spend far less than any other advanced democracy. The whole series of, of changes of that kind which could have, over time, a real effect on the participation of citizens.

HEFFNER: But I’m, I’m puzzled.

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: You say “could” …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER … I grant “could” …:

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER … what about “would”, what about “will”, what about are likely to take place … those changes that are likely to take place?

BOK: Oh, I think if we set about trying to overcome this problem through the variety of measures I’ve stated, we would see over time substantial increases in voting participation and other forms of political participation. I have no doubt about that. What I am doubtful about is whether the will is there. There are lots of people who are very ambivalent about more participation by ordinary people in government. There are some who for partisan reasons feel this is going to hurt them or interfere with their own political fortunes. There are others who feel that, as you implied, that it’s hopeless. There are still others who feel it’s a very good thing that relatively few people vote because they assume that the ones who don’t vote are ignorant and even dangerous, less concerned about civil liberties and other important aspects of American life and that if everybody voted we would run into all sorts of trouble. Now I think all of those points are dead wrong. But they are widely shared, so I think the important point is whether we can get over that and recognize that we’re paying quite a price for diminished participation in government and it’s almost bound to increase because the one thing we know is that people in my generation, where even high school drop-outs vote at a rate of 60% or more are going to pass from the scene and they’re going to be replaced by younger people who vote … and I’m speaking not of, just of high school drop outs, but even everyone, including college graduates vote at the rate of about one-third. And as more of them come in and more of us leave the stage, the rates of participation are going to continue to go down and the ill effects of that on our democracy are going to continue to increase.

HEFFNER: Well, when I picked up “The Trouble With Government”, I didn’t expect you to embrace the question that I had which was, “Is this the trouble with Harry?” …

BOK: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … and you pointed out almost immediately …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … that the Hitchcock film “The Trouble With Harry”, in it Harry was dead.

BOK: Harry was dead, yes.

HEFFNER: And you’re affirming that Harry isn’t dead here, that government, or that the country isn’t dead. But suppose we take the items you just ticked off …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … let’s look at the Academy …

BOK: Yes.
HEFFNER: … are you saying that there are good indications that strides are being made in the direction of turning the Academy from becoming more and more of a job training structure to a liberal arts structure, once again?

BOK: Well, I … whether or not we’re successful in that I do see signs that more and more college presidents are recognizing that they need to put explicit emphasis on the development of citizenship as an aim of liberal education. Just, I guess a year and a half ago, a substantial number of them joined in a declaration, which I helped to draft, pointing this out. And, and saying that there was a danger that colleges were putting far too little emphasis on this and, and pledging to do something about it. And some colleges, such as Tufts, for example, to pick one in my neighborhood have really acted on that premise and begun to put some substantial resources and energy into trying to turn the tide around and re-establish citizenship as a major aim of education.

HEFFNER: I don’t want to be mean …

BOK: [Laughter] Please, go ahead.

HEFFNER: Okay, make a bet then.

BOK: Mmmm??

HEFFNER: Make a bet, a realistic bet …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … as to the degree to which that kind of change, in the direction that you want …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … will take place, rather than a continuing movement, and it’s a very, very rapid movement …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … in the other direction, in the direction of making the Academy a training ground for people looking for jobs. I, I really would like your bet.

BOK: Well, what’s, what’s difficult to bet on is whether there’ll be sufficient support to undertake the measures that I indicate. I think if those measures are undertaken, and it’s important not to just do one thing, like emphasize civic education. If that’s all you do it will be soon forgotten when students leave school and go out into society. You’ve got to do all the things that I have pointed out in the book, starting with civic education and, and going right up into making it easier to vote, and easing some of the registration requirements. But if all of those things are done so that they are self-reinforcing, I think you can overcome this sort of cumulative downward spiral, this vicious circle, that’s diminishing our effort and attention in government, and begin to, to push it in the other direction so that the good things that are happening, reinforce one another and create a substantial movement in the other direction. I, I firmly believe that can be done. It never has really been tried. Although it’s being tried even less today than before. We’ve never recognized that this is a major objective for the society and gotten behind doing the various things that need to be done to overcome it.

HEFFNER: What happened … and I’m not going to press you further …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … about a bet …

BOK: Yes. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: …I wouldn’t do that to the former President of Harvard University …

BOK: Yes, I certainly could not bet in public. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What really did happen? Media? The development of what, when Mrs. Bok was here, and I think of her great book on lies and lying …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … I think of the institution of the lie …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … perhaps of public relations …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … etc. What did happen here that seemingly has not happened elsewhere in the world?

BOK: You mean what happened to increase the level of distrust and disaffection and disengagement …


BOK: … with, with government? Well, there’s not doubt that there were a series of shocks in the 1960s which pushed the public very rapidly from having a very high degree of confidence in government, not in political leaders, into much diminished confidence. Certainly the war in Vietnam and the sense that the government was being entirely forthcoming with us about the way that war was, was going. The assassination of a number of leading Americans beginning with President Kennedy, and the, of course, Watergate. Those shocks sort of cumulatively reinforced one another and pushed the level of confidence very rapidly from one in which 76% of the American public said they trusted the Federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time … it’s a very high number, down to the point where less than a third had that degree of confidence. That’s a complete turnaround. And once it began then a whole lot of other forces began to kick in as the public grew more distrustful with government and, of course, the media which is very sensitive to the market, they began to reinforce that. You can see that negative stories in the media and in television became steadily more prominent from one decade to the next. Less and less time and space began to be devoted to public affairs so that lots of cultural forces moved in to reinforce this shock that had occurred during the sixties and early seventies and perpetuated the low amount of trust. And, of course, is then reinforced very much by, by politicians who have exploited that, who’ve run against the government instead of for it. And who denigrate government very frequently, and of course there are a lot of people who believe that government is inherently limited and dangerous. Indeed, it is dangerous in some ways. But the remedy is not necessarily to weaken it further. So I think there were a lot of cultural forces, in other words, which took advantage of this initial shock and kept pushing our confidence lower and lower. Finally, in the nineties, you began to get a little bit of a revival because things were so good in the, in the country, and even things like crime and teenage pregnancy were going down. That finally, toward the end of the decade you began to get some restoring of confidence. But it’s still only a mild recovery and we are very far from where we were in the early sixties.

HEFFNER: What about the individual institutions and procedures that many people identify …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … some with one, some with the other …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … that could be corrected. You seem to give somewhat short shrift …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … to the specific changes that are requested.

BOK: Well, I think they’re very difficult because many of the institutional features that, that get in the way of efficient government respond to very strong desires among the American people so that trying to reform them in a significant way would be very difficult. For example, many of our policies, like our health policy seem much more disjoined rather incoherent, fragmented, into many different pieces that done fit together very well. That certainly is caused, in large part, by the fact that our institutions are fragmented. We have separate branches of government … each with their own independent input into, into policy. We have, you know, no overall coordinating agency that can smooth the rough edges and make sure the pieces fit together. We’re not a very accountable government because …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

BOK: … there are so many moving parts. There’s so many different groups … Congress, the courts, the, executive branch, the states which share the implementation of most programs. Even increasingly, many programs are implemented by private entities with government funding and supervision. So you’ve got so many people participating that it is very difficult to hold anyone accountable when the programs don’t, don’t go well. And what that does is mean you put all the emphasis on the programs and what their immediate effect is going to be, what will play well in … with the public. What will … what your focus groups and opinion polls tell you will be immediately popular because the ultimate effects take some time to work out and when they do, nobody can really tell exactly who, in this rather fragmented government is, is responsible. All of that produces rather incoherent legislation, but is very much in tune with very deep values and feelings about government in the United States. I mean we were born in rebellion against government so a lot of this fragmentation is an effort to make sure that government is not too powerful. That different pieces will check one another. Now, one isn’t going to change that, one probably shouldn’t change that. It’s, it’s part of our culture and in many ways it’s served us well. But it’s not a particularly apt framework for creating kind of coherent, well coordinated policy solutions to very complicated problems of a kind that the Founding Fathers didn’t face. They didn’t think of government as providing a health care system, or a higher education system or doing something about the multiple problems of the city. And the structure of government that they devised is, is … although it’s very good at preventing abuse and arbitrary power and that’s terribly important. It’s not very good at coming up with coordinated policy solutions to these complicated, multi-faceted problems of the kind that are so common today.

HEFFNER: So that in answering the question, “What’s the trouble with government …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … you would not spend much talking about institutional or structural changes.

BOK: I would look at it because there are certain changes that could make the whole thing work a bit better without sacrificing the virtues of fragmented government that we all believe in …

HEFFNER: What are some of those?

BOK: Well, I think, for example there could be more communication between the Congress and the Judicial branch, for example. There could be, and there is beginning to be more emphasis on accountability by the so-called performance and accountability act that forces the Executive branch to be more precise about the goals of its program and try to measure the effectiveness of a government in implementing programs according to the subjective … All of those things will have a, a modestly good effect if they are implemented properly. Vice President Gore’s re-invention of government where he’s tried to make substantial changes in the way the Federal bureaucracy works is certainly the kind of thing that needs to be done to try to improve the quality of people going into, into the bureaucracy to try to get them to focus more on performance and results and be more accountable for what … for the results they achieve. All of those things are helpful.


BOK: … but to say that they are going to substantially change the government …overcome so many inherent limits, that as I say are the other side of much that we value in the way that our government is constructed, that would be going to far.

HEFFNER: President Bok, we’ve gone too far and I keep getting this signal, “cut, cut, cut” …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … would you stay where you are, and let us go another …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … program …

BOK: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: … because there are so many things to say.

BOK: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.

BOK: [Laughter] Good.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.