The Checks And Balances Are Working As Intended

Francis Fukuyama makes some unconvincing claims: The political system of checks and balances is paralysing policy decision-making in the United States. Political science spends too much time studying institutions that check and limit government, and not enough time studying state capacity to act autonomously. Max Weber provided the model of bureaucratic capacity and authority against which countries should measure their potential for state effectiveness.

Fukuyama’s argument appears on his blog at American Interest [here and here] and in newspapers [e.g. Financial Times]. In one sense he is quite right. These three big themes do belong together. An autonomous state has great advantages over a politically constrained state when it comes down to getting things done. There is disproportionate emphasis on often spurious or magical properties of democracy. Like many people I favour a strong state … when I like what it is doing. 

However, Fukuyama does a disservice to Weber by taking the bureaucracy thesis out of context. Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy is incorporated within a perspective that prioritises legal-procedural rather than bureaucratic measures of state capacity, alongside a defence of checks and balances which remains persuasive even for today’s exceptional deadlock in US politics. The paralysis over what to do about the deficit and debt, as President Obama concedes, is “ideological”. The Weberian way to break the deadlock is not executive or bureaucratic authority to bypass checks and balances, but rather the impersonal mechanism of law through amendments to the constitution which remove a policy issue from the grasp of politicians and lobbyists.