Why can’t the government run anything? Understanding the “submerged state”


I heard a story this morning about the tug of war between Apple and the federal government.  The first person interviewed said, with regard to allowing the government access to his iPhone, “They can’t run the post office or healthcare or anything else.”

Why do people have this nihilistic attitude toward the federal government?  The US Postal Service delivers mail to every address in the United States every Monday through Saturday.  Social Security checks come on time every month.  Packages from Amazon arrive without fail, many within two days.

The federal government, for all of its reach, doesn’t “run healthcare.” The Veterans Administration certainly has its problems, but Medicare works well and has far lower costs than private health plans.

I’m convinced that much of this animus has to do with the fact that what governments do (at the local, state, and federal level) are taken for granted by most of us.  Of course the roads get plowed; of course the mail gets delivered.  That’s their job, right?

Suzanne Mettler makes this point in her book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy.  The submerged state consists of “existing policies that lay beneath the surface of U.S. market institutions and within the federal tax system.”

Citizens don’t notice this infrastructure that supports market transactions and simply assume that it will always be there. People perk up when the mail doesn’t get delivered or when a tax refund doesn’t arrive the way they thought it would.  These are the exceptions that get turned into “they can’t run anything.”

Mettler argues that “we can expose the submerged state, reveal governance, and consequently enable citizens to become more engaged and active, reclaiming their voice in the democratic process.”

I hope so.  The successes of the Trump and Cruz campaigns tell me that citizens may be “more engaged and active,” but they are directing their engagement and activity towards blowing up the submerged state rather than understanding and reforming it.