Review of A Republic No More by Jay Cost

One of the very best books I have read this year has been Jay Cost’s delightful historical work on political corruption, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of Political Corruption. I call it a historical work because the book’s major appeal transcends its ideological thesis: That the founders did not envision a government which would have the ambitions the federal government has taken on post-Industrial Revolution, and therefore did not design a government with the structures remotely capable of handling these big government tasks. That thesis is profound enough, and well-established in Mr. Cost’s fine work. But the historical body of evidence he provides for this culture of corruption which has become synonymous with much of American politics is simply extraordinary.

Cost’s thesis is not partisan, and he is not seeking to push readers towards an ideological bend. He establishes with well-reasoned and thoroughly-presented documentation that something has to give: If we are going to be a government that gives manna from heaven to farmers, a national senior care medical system (let alone an “everyone else” care medical system), a government housing program, a protector of industry – even antiquated ones, and all else it has taken on since the country’s founding, then we either are going to have to accept perpetual and distasteful corruption and waste, or we will have to re-design the very structure of our government which was very intentionally not designed for this. He offers (briefly) some temporary prescriptions in his conclusion, none of which I believe he actually sees as viable (the formation of a coalition between anti-corruption conservatives and anti-corruption liberals), but what the book really does is diagnose the historical roots of a bureaucracy grown out of control, and the inevitability of a bureaucracy grown corrupt.

The founders envisioned a country greater than one led by trial lawyers, public employee unions, and crony capitalists. Their vision had legs because they couldn’t imagine a government so large that it would provide oxygen to any of the aforementioned camps. The incremental reduction of government’s size will bring the exponential reduction of corruption and waste. But that size of government will be reduced only in exact proportion to the increase of individual responsibility within the citizenry. THAT is the need of the hour. And the cart will not go before the horse.