Don’t cheer for gridlock

In The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, Vincent Ostrom argues that a democratic society must be a self-governing society. Not just one that’s designed the right way.

By explaining why people need to be able to use persuasion and work together to solve their problems to keep democracy healthy, Ostrom gives us a useful way to think about a common concern: gridlock. Libertarians often cheer for gridlock. We shouldn’t. And not just because it’s tone deaf. 

The authors of The Federalist argue for the American system of checks and balances as a failsafe. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. ” (Hamilton or Madison, Federalist 1) Checks and balances are meant to compensate for a “defect of better motives” among the people. In other words, for when people don’t oppose government overreach.

(In Canada, representative government and the three branches are supposed to guarantee ‘good government’. Checks and balances don’t exist here. The main check on the federal government is the power of the provinces. Perhaps because cities and towns aren’t given powers by our constitution, provinces have a much easier time pushing through unpopular policy.)

That Madison and Hamilton felt the need to guard against a “defect of better motives implies that varying degrees and types of opportunism prevail in public affairs. Such a system is obviously vulnerable to stalemate unless conflicts are mediated by processes of conflict resolution in a culture of inquiry using ideas to give expression to possibilities in shaping and reshaping emergent patterns of order.” (Ostrom, 12, emphasis mine.)

The basic idea is that the federal government shouldn’t pass laws that aren’t in everyone’s best interest. Not in everyone’s best interest according to a few experts, but according to everyone. The people who control the government shouldn’t be able to tell those who don’t to “deal with it” and force their policies through. If there isn’t consensus, people are supposed to work together to find a solution (or multiple solutions), as they would if the government wasn’t involved. Checks are meant to stop bad laws, but also to tell governments to go back to the people and make a case for them.

Seen in this light, gridlock performs two functions. First, it pumps the brakes when a democratic population loses its head and tries to railroad through policies that would hurt individuals and minorities (this is the “Tyranny of the Majority” that Madison fears). But it also acts as a warning that the ability of society to self-govern is in trouble.

Ostrom argues that checks and balances might be a good failsafe, but they’re no substitute for people who want the freedom to solve their own problems. The problem with running into gridlock when people don’t want to bother with problem solving is that going back to the people because checks and balances stop a bill in its tracks is just another kind of problem solving.

Remember that if people don’t believe they can solve the problems they face, they will turn to the government to solve them. If they turn to the government to solve their problems, then restraining the government looks a lot like restraining the ability to solve problems. So, of course, people discard their support for limits on the government in order to get things done.

If we get into gridlock more often because people are worse at voluntary problem solving and voluntary problem solving is required to pass laws, then we end up with a bad combination: Gridlock plus an inability to get out of gridlock.

Ostrom tells us that’s not something fans of democracy or small government should cheer for. That’s a very bad sign.


This post discusses the first preface and first chapter of Vincent Ostrom’s The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge. I first discussed this chapter hereAll page references are from the University of Michigan Press 2009 [1997] paperback edition.