In 1857, Charles Dickens completed serial publication of his eleventh novel, Little Dorrit. Among other things, the novel includes a scathing indictment of a government whose main object is to prevent anything from getting done. This mission is embodied in the Circumlocution Office, a bureaucracy dedicated to “How Not To Do It.” Any individual wishing—scandalously!—to actually get something done, regardless of the potential benefits to the nation, is effectively prevented by the intentional, even aggressive, inefficiency of the system.
As I was rereading this novel recently, I had to ask myself whether we in the United States, known proverbially for our “can do” spirit, are developing instead a “can’t do,” or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a “won’t do,” philosophy. I say “we,” rather than pointing a finger at the government, because we have the government that we chose. If our elected representatives seem to be primarily concerned with keeping each other from getting anything done, it is because on some level that is what we elected them to do—or not do.
Or is it? Consider the fact that we rarely have the White House and both houses of Congress all controlled by the same party. Consider the fact that when we do, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Consider the fact that whichever party is in the majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, it is rarely a very large majority. This suggests two things: one is the obvious fact that as a nation we do not share a single, monolithic set of political beliefs, and the other is that we prefer a balance, and that we enforce that balance by redistributing it, to some extent, every two years. It would be cynical to think that this redistribution is solely for the ongoing purpose of making sure nothing gets done. And it is hard not to be a little cynical when it has somehow become OK for our government to shut down rather than compromise.
But cynicism is the key ingredient of How Not To Do It. It ensures that healthcare is not fixed, that small businesses are unable to get loans, that bridges fall down. The key ingredient of the “can do” spirit, on the other hand, is hope. Hope looks for synergies and solutions. Hope funds R&D and rural health clinics. Hope sees the need and looks for a way to fill it. There are, I am convinced, many politicians on both sides of the aisle who have this spirit, and they have been elected by people who have this spirit. People who share common interests in growing businesses, educating children, and advancing technology, and who look at the ideas proposed to achieve these ends, rather than looking no further than the party affiliations of the people who propose them.
In the 1932 film Horse Feathers, Groucho Marx sings “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” in response to a group of board members who are trying to advise him. It’s very funny when Groucho sings it, but as a motto for government it is divisive and deeply dangerous. When we elect politicians—from whatever party—who espouse this motto, we endorse running our country on the principle of “How Not To Do It.” When we take the time to identify and elect politicians who will listen to ideas from across the political spectrum, and enact meaningful legislation that meets the needs and shared interests of the vast majority of people, then we truly say that we support “How To Do It.”