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February 7, 2023 80 min

In my columns and on this show over the past few years, I’ve argued that to achieve the goals liberals hold most dear, we need a liberalism that builds. A liberalism that builds everything from multifamily housing and mass transit systems to transmission lines and solar farms. And we need a liberalism that can build it all quickly, cheaply and effectively. But even in the places where liberals have governing power, they are often failing to do exactly that. Why?

Nicholas Bagley is a law professor at the University of Michigan, the former chief legal counsel to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the author of a fascinating paper called “The Procedure Fetish.” In it, Bagley argues that liberals — liberal lawyers in particular — have helped hobble the very government they now need to act swiftly and decisively. It’s easy to see how conservatives have strategically used a thicket of procedures and paperwork to slow down government, but what Bagley shows is that liberals too have been complicit in that project — to the detriment of many of the very causes they hope to advance.

So this is a conversation about what I’ve come to think of as the divided soul of American liberalism — one that simultaneously demands big government action while also constantly acting to restrain it. We also discuss the importance of the administrative state, what liberals often fail to understand about government legitimacy, how corporate interests end up “capturing” government agencies, why Bagley thinks that American politics broadly and the Democratic Party in particular have a “lawyer problem,” how government paralysis helps fuel the rise of right-wing populists like Donald Trump, what it will take to restore Americans’ trust in government, the problems with the public interest legal movement, how progressives are getting in the way of their own decarbonization agenda and more.


The Procedure Fetish” by Nicholas Bagley

Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy by William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe

"There Has to Be a Better Way to Run the Government" by Ezra Klein

Book Recommendations:

Public Citizens by Paul Sabin

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Babel by R.F. Kuang

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Kristin Lin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Kate Sinclair. Mixing by Sonia Herrero. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Pat McCusker and Kristina Samulewski.

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