Designed to fail

Jeffrey Reiman

The June 2010 issue of the ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine contains this paragraph, in a column by Philip Jenkins:

The concept of “designed to fail” was formulated back in 1979 in an influential study by leftist scholar Jeffrey Reiman entitled The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.  Following Marxist theory, Reiman argued that the goal of the criminal-justice system was not to suppress crime but to promote and sustain acceptable levels of social misbehavior, with the aim of enhancing the power and resources of official agencies.  Crime, in short, is useful, even essential, for the preservation of state power.  Reiman was not postulating a conspiracy theory but exploring the dynamics of agencies charged with tasks that were literally impossible.  Yet rather than being discredited or disheartened by their failures, agencies stood to benefit mightily from them and actively sought out still more absurdly quioxotic challenges.  They were in a no-lose situation. 

This description reminds me of an idea I’ve sometimes tried to express.  In a representative democracy, political power is in the hands of the electorate, yet the electorate consists almost entirely of people who are in no position to know what the state is doing.  If the government undertakes a program meant to discourage certain crimes, the most the majority will now about this program is that it represents a campaign to fight crime.  Even if this program is an absolute success in rational terms, and entirely eliminates the crimes it was aimed at discouraging, the public will observe that other crimes still go unchecked.  The electorate, therefore, will count the program as a failure.  

Because of these disparate perceptions, advocates of increased state power find themselves in a position to appeal simultaneously to political insiders and to the public at large.  Insiders may respond to the fact that the program succeeded in its actual goals, and support future programs to pursue other goals.  The public at large will focus on the program’s imagined failures, and demand a more aggressive program to make good on promises that they suppose the first program to have made.  As a result, the degree of police authority and other sorts of bureaucratic domination tends to ratchet ever upward as a representative democracy develops.  When this idea first popped into my head a while back, I thought of labeling it “the authoritarian spiral.”  I was disappointed to find that political scientist Ian Loader had already coined the phrase “authoritarian spiral,” with another meaning, a few years before.  So I started calling it “the authoritarian ratchet effect,” which is admit not at all catchy.   

To prevent this ratchet effect from transforming a representative democracy into a despotism, I call for a revival of direct democracy.  People who are actively involved in drafting, approving, and carrying out particular laws are likelier to have an idea what can reasonably be expected of those laws than are people whose only involvement in that process is the right to cast one vote out of 100,000,000.

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