Crisis and the American Way

Noam Scheiber says “our political system isn’t ideally suited to dealing with financial and economic crises.” Ezra Klein disagrees and says we deal fine with crises, the problem “is long-term crises like global warming or health costs.”


I think this misunderstands the force of the point. No political system deals well with problems where short-term pain can provide long-term gain, or where concentrated benefits are set against diffuse costs. But the U.S. political system, with its high number of veto points, is arguably unsuited to taking decisive action in response to a crisis compared to alternative models, such as the Westminster system in play in the United Kingdom and Canada or to the multiparty coalition systems of northern Europe. It’s hard to know how to evaluate that claim. There is, however, a political science literature indicating that American-style systems are more prone to total constitutional breakdown in a crisis.

Certainly the American system doesn’t appear to have been designed with an aim to facilitating a decisive response in a crisis situation. Instead, it does two things very well. One—one of its primary purposes—is to protect private property within the confined of a system of representative government. Compared to other advanced democracies, the United States has lower taxes, a smaller welfare state, less regulation, etc., and this is not an accident. The other major virtue of our system is that it knits a very diverse country together into two broad, loose coalitions. If we had an Israeli (or Dutch or Swiss or…) coalition-based system, then we might have an incredible spectrum of regional or ethnic parties as new immigrant groups formed new identity-based parties rather than joining establishment “machines.”