Skip to main content
Harvard University Press - home
The Trouble with Government

The Trouble with Government

Derek Bok

ISBN 9780674008328

Publication date: 03/01/2002

In the past thirty years, Americans have lost faith in their government and the politicians who lead it. They have blamed Washington for a long list of problems, ranging from poor schools to costly medical care to high rates of violent crime. After investigating these complaints and determining that many are justified, Derek Bok seeks to determine the main reasons for the failings and frustrations associated with government.

Discounting three common explanations--deteriorating leadership, the effect of the media on the political process, and the influence of interest groups--Bok identifies four weaknesses that particularly need explaining: a persistent tendency by Congress to design programs poorly; to impose expensive and often quixotic regulations that produce only modest results; to do less than other leading democracies to protect working people from illness, unemployment, and other basic hazards of life; and to leave large numbers of people, especially children, living in poverty.

Bok goes on to explore the reasons for these fundamental weaknesses and to discuss popular remedies such as term limits, devolution, "reinventing" government, and campaign finance reform. While some of these proposals have merit, Bok finds a deeper, more troubling paradox: Americans want to gain more power over their government, but are devoting less time to exerting a constructive influence. Their dissatisfaction with government is growing as their participation in the political process is declining. These contradictory trends, Bok argues, contribute to the problems of our democracy. Fortunately, there are many concrete steps that Americans can take to be politically engaged and to help their government improve its performance.

"Democracy," Bok concludes, "is a collective venture which falters or flourishes depending on the efforts citizens invest in its behalf."


  • The former president of Harvard, Bok corroborates the perception of government failure...Surprisingly, [he] exculpates the usual villains. Special-interest groups and the sensationalist media deserve far less blame for our political malaise, he asserts, than does a system that frames regulations as rules of legal combat, not protocols for cooperation, and that denies the underclass a meaningful place in public debates...In his broader critique, he challenges a self-indulgent electorate to renew the civic virtues essential to wise governance...In his agenda for national renewal, he challenges us all to enlarge the possibilities for a vibrant democracy.

    —Bryce Christensen, Booklist


  • Derek C. Bok is President Emeritus and Three Hundredth Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 507 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author