“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
John Maynard Keynes wasn’t talking about government when he wrote those words—but he might as well have been.
There is an undeniable reluctance to new ideas, innovative approaches and creative solutions on display in legislative hearings every session. Which makes sense (in a depressing way) given the incentives at play within any large, bureaucratic, organization—let alone one as political as a legislative body. After all, even when a politician champions a minor reform with no hopes of passing it into law, they can (and will) still brag about having “done something” for their constituents.
There are corners of corporate America that operate similarly. A mid-level manager in a large company, for example, has a far easier time explaining failure to their supervisor by stating that they tried their best but “this is the way it has always been done.” As it turns out, “I thought I’d try something new,” has not traditionally been well-received by many upper-management types who have their own bosses to answer to.
There are, of course, important distinctions to be made between the impact of a government rejecting bold new ideas, and a large corporation’s aversion to risk. If consumers feel unhappy with their bank’s lack of innovative products, for example, there is no shortage of alternative service providers—including their own mattresses. Dissatisfaction with local policing practices, on the other hand, is an issue not so easily solved.
As a result, the government's continued conventional failure has a lasting impact on residents.
Unfortunately, despite all the partisan grandstanding and political posturing, much of politics nonetheless seems reflective of that mid-level manager avoiding risk at the expense of success.
Every two years the Legislature seems to have, effectively, the same arguments about the same spending battles as the year before—from education funding, to criminal justice, to a public healthcare option, few things discussed each year are groundbreaking or lasting.
Recognizing the comfort politicians, as a group, have with “failing conventionally” (and the aversion they have to the risks associated with bold ideas) is a key piece to understanding why we find ourselves in a perpetual state of legislative déjà vu.
From education, to policing, to state-provided assistance programs, the monopolistic services government provides are stubbornly difficult to reform. Partially, maybe even mostly, this is due to the fact that the status quo provides not only political security, but also financial security to government’s own special interests.
However, the sheer size, complexity and fundamental lack of personal accountability inherent in any large organization means the willingness to color outside of the lines simply doesn’t exist in centralized government bureaucracies. At least, not the way it does in small garage-based home offices or plucky Silicon Valley upstarts.
As if to highlight this point, the most out-of-the-box proposal discussed early on in the 2021 legislative session—Gov. Steve Sisolak’s aptly named “Innovation Zone” concept—generated substantial media attention for its creative and unorthodox approach to economic development. Excitement over the proposal, however, was short-lived as Gov. Sisolak pulled the idea from discussion before details were even put into the form of a bill.
Opinions on what, exactly, Innovation Zones would mean for Nevada varied widely—but one thing was certain: The sheer unorthodoxy of the proposal was both its primary appeal from a marketing standpoint, and also likely what doomed it from the start. There’s little doubt that politicians on both sides of the aisle were nervous about the optics of giving a tech company its own autonomous city in the middle of a rural Nevada county. For most legislators, the political risks associated with backing the proposal—even if it ultimately worked out well for Nevadans—was simply too high to merit full-throated support.
Prior to the exciting (albeit brief) foray into the possibility of blockchain-powered cities, the last bold policy proposal to generate similar national interest in Nevada might have been the state’s 2015 adoption of Education Savings Accounts—another big idea that, ultimately, went nowhere due to someone’s idea of political calculus.
The ESA program effectively allowed a family to access a portion of the state’s per-pupil education funding for education expenses related to private school options—and at the time it was the most comprehensive attempt at “universal” educational choice in the nation. However, after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the process used to fund it was unconstitutional, the very same Republican governor who had signed it into law failed to address the funding question before Democrats took control of the Legislature—he did, however, manage to rally his party to partially fund a professional football stadium before they lost full control of the Legislature.
Priorities in politics are, needless to say, sometimes more about bread and circuses than we would like to admit.
Similar examples that garnered less (national) media attention are likely too numerous to list—but it seems pretty obvious that truly bold, innovative or nonconformist reforms are an extremely rare occurrence in state government. As a result, Nevadans simply shouldn’t depend on government—and the political actors running it—to solve all, or even most, of our social, economic and cultural problems.
Doing so would seem to be its own form of conventional failure.
Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he became deeply interested in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in policy and public commentary—working as a columnist, a political humorist and a radio talk show host. Today, Michael is director of communications for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives with his wife and daughter in Las Vegas.