The turn of the 20th century was an amazing time for scientific advances. All it took, it seemed, to discover new flora or fauna was the determination to do so. New elements were discovered in garage workshops, often by accident. The hard sciences were exciting in part because of the palpable feeling of participation and progress, and partly because of the fact that such discoveries were concrete and relatively intuitive even to the layperson. And the contributions to day-to-day life were substantial.
However, such leaps forward are now considerably rarer, the sciences having become several orders of magnitude more complex. Along with this increasing complexity comes less tangible benefit from scientific endeavor and a decidedly cooler attitude from the American public. Subatomic physics and climate change modeling are among those areas of science that have far-reaching implications but whose central tenets are met with skepticism or, worse, apathy from the population at large.
Part of the reason for this shift is that the intuitive understanding of such discoveries is exceedingly difficult. For example, explaining string theory to a roomful of nonphysicists (myself included) would likely be met with an expression not unlike that reserved for the ramblings of someone a few too many on the other side of 0.08.
The same is true of government.
Of late, people have been looking back upon the era of this country’s founding with the romantic notion that its simplicity can be replicated in our own time. After all, in 1776, a few intelligent yeoman farmers with a little extra time on their hands created and governed a great nation. And government did a lot of good: It kept the King of England off your back, enforced contracts, built roads where no roads existed. A feeling of participation and progress in government instilled an implicit confidence in the institution: the average citizen could intuitively grasp its functions and see its benefits.
Today, however, American attitudes toward Congress are at lows usually reserved for dread diseases. People see layers of legal precedent, thousands of pages of laws and regulations, numerous administrative bodies and quibbling in Congress and are skeptical of – or even hostile to – both the system and its outcomes. What some fail to realize is that the population of the United States is now 77 times what it was when the Constitution was written and represents but one part of a staggeringly interconnected planet.
And so it is no surprise that government, like science, has become more complex.
In a speech to students at Oxford in 1933, Albert Einstein said, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” This sentiment, often paraphrased to “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler,” can be applied to our government as well. The goal of government is to make its functioning as simple as possible without having to forego the greater good that comes from its existence. In other words, its complexity should not necessarily be viewed as a de facto flaw.
While the principle of simplifying government can seem well-intentioned when taken at face value, simplifying for its own sake is a poor justification for the wholesale gutting of social and educational programs that we currently see in North Carolina and across the country. As citizens, we must come face-to-face with the fact that we live in a complex country that requires a complex government, one that is not always perfectly clear at first glance.
Rather than responding with distrust and disengagement (the initial collective shrug over the shutdown of the government may be more alarming than the shutdown itself), we must instead strive to understand government and, in so doing, engage and improve it.
For in the final summation, the promise of a radical simplification of government is illusory. Just as we no longer live in a time in which a Newtonian physics suffices to solve all of our questions on the nature of the universe, it’s time to acknowledge that the governmental equivalent of Newtonian physics for which the GOP currently advocates crosses the line from simple to simplistic.
Casey T. Crowley, J.D., is a fellow at Wake Forest University School of Law’'s Community Law & Business Clinic in Winston-Salem.