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The era of collective choice

Democrats are trying to revive their flagging spirits and reverse their sagging fortunes by attacking the "contract" that Republican congressional candidates have signed. The core of the contract is a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, an idea many Democrats and much of the intelligentsia call simplistic. But now comes James Q. Wilson of UCLA, past president of the American Political Science Association and no simpleton, defending the amendment as a sound response to the current tensions between American's political and constitutional systems.

In an essay for a book on public policy forthcoming from Johns Hopkins, Wilson argues that different eras are defined by different problems. From the founding to the Civil War, the defining problem was the federal government's legitimacy. From the Civil War until the New Deal the problem was power: Under what limits did the federal government operate? From the New Deal until recently the problem was representation: Were all groups appropriately involved in Washington's increasing importance?

The defining issue of today's era, Wilson says, is collective choice: Can Washington, which now acknowledges no limits to its scope and responds to rapidly proliferating factions, make choices that serve society's long-term interests? For individuals, hard choices are unavoidable. But for Americans acting collectively _ acting through a federal government that is no longer constrained by either the old constitutional understanding of its limited power or the old stigma against deficit spending _ hard choices are avoidable, and thus are avoided.

Is there any human want or difficulty that is not now considered a federal policy problem? Policy-making, says Wilson, has been nationalized in the sense that there no longer are arguments about whether the Constitution bars federal action in particular spheres. The last barriers fell in a 12-month period in 1964-65, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Medicare.

Thirty years later the public's patience with, and the intellectuals' confidence in, government have been eroded by what Wilson calls frustrations with "an activist government enmeshed in the countless details of everybody's business." Electoral politics has become more disorderly as parties have weakened and factions have multiplied. Elections have become less important because policy-making is increasingly done by courts, bureaucracies and legislatures operated by a political class decreasingly oriented to broad public preferences.

That class has increasingly shifted decisions from arenas where public opinion is most powerful _ state and local governments, and private institutions _ to institutions such as courts and the central government, where elites have privileged access. No wonder many substantial policy changes, from affirmative action to foreign interventions, reflect not popular desires but elite interests.

Hence, says Wilson, it is no longer as clear as it once was "what, if anything, an election might settle." However, the elections Nov.

8 might produce sufficient votes in Congress for a balanced budget amendment. If so, the rules of collective choice will be re-written, and these off-year elections will have produced change more profound than most presidential elections produce.

Washington Post Writers Group