Trapped in the institutional matrix

By Jori Korpershoek

When he was accused of not having enough experience in politics, 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot claimed that “I don’t have any experience in gridlock government … I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world. ... [But unlike my competition] I’ve got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem.” Much like the social scientists Pierson describes in the introduction of "Politics in Time", Perot only looked at a snapshot of the problems of government. Not the moving picture. Nobody would consciously design the American public school systems like it is today, but that is not how politics work. It has been pieced together from legislation to legislation.

Steven Teles borrows an analogy from technology to describe this process; he calls it “kludgeocracy.”  A kludge is an “an ill-assorted collection of parts” put together to solve a problem. This can be compared to an old software program to which additions and patches have been made for decades and decades. It might still technically work, but it is probably not pleasant to use and it is impossible to add new functionality.

In technology, the slate can be wiped clean. The introduction of iOS and Android kept many of the useful aspects of their desktop predecessors, but also removed a whole lot of the weird workarounds that accumulated over the years.

In a political democracy, such a reset button is harder to push. The question is whether this is a bug or a feature. Designing a new starting point and breaking away from history has given us The Weimar Republic,  Soviet Russia and Revolutionary France. But increasing complexity, indecipherable laws and a lack of choice is also a threat to democracy. It slowly shifts the power from the people to the thousands and thousands of pages ofaccumulated legislation. We become trapped in the “institutional matrix.”