Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Additive government

Among all the things people do, they are least successful at government.

It's not hard to understand why. All governments must contend with numerous self-interested individuals and groups, plus vast chasms in opinion and ideology. They are at the mercy of human nature, which puts immediate benefit above long-term values. Most of those who are drawn to public office crave power, and so are exactly the type who shouldn't have it.

Amid all these pressures, government is supposed to operate in a way that leaves no faction feeling totally defeated or left out; that there are fundamental principles that even the government cannot destroy; that the individual has some influence in outcomes.

In practice, the odds against achieving such possibilities are so heavy that the default system throughout history has been royalty, oligarchy, or tyranny.

Ancient Athens gave every citizen a vote, but that lasted for barely a generation. Its most famous philosopher, Plato, thought democracy was madness.

In all the time since, there have been two noble attempts to realize the ideals which have worked reasonably well: the American federalist system and the British parliamentary system (and governments based on the British parliament).

The American founders, well knowing the long dreary pageant of abuses of power, tried to devise a form that would give politicians enough influence to get necessary things done but keep it within strict limits. Their solution was the famous concept of checks and balances -- giving different institutions and jurisdictions the ability to withstand or counter pressures from the others.

The 10th Amendment, last among the original Bill of Rights, says:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
The amendment is a main pillar of federalism, defined by Merriam-Webster as "the distribution of power in an organization (as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units." In a sad commentary on our times, the very word "federal" is now associated almost exclusively with the central government in Washington.

What kind of power establishment does the United States have now (in its underlying reality, not the symbolic vestiges of the original republic)?

I'd say we live in an authoritarian country, probably on the way to an oligarchy or dictatorship unless there is a major change of direction, and soon. The 10th Amendment is a quaint ornament but a dead letter when the central government decides which companies are bailed out or subsidized with citizens' money, which orders its peasants to buy health insurance from government-sponsored exchanges via a dysfunctional website.

If a dictatorship, it won't look like cliché banana republic dictatorships of the past. No uniformed Generalissimo on a white horse. No massed goose-stepping rankers on Pennsylvania Avenue. There won't be tanks on the White House lawn.

The Generalissimo will sport a perfectly tailored business suit. The military under his command will remain in their bases, largely out of sight, in constant readiness to put down any popular revolt. The tanks (or armored vehicles of a similar nature) will be in your city, with the local police logo on them.

Although the Washington elite has, for practical purposes, the ability to institute any law anywhere in the country (if necessary by "executive order"), that doesn't mean states and localities have no power. But the power is not a counterweight to Washington. It's additive -- meaning it can subject inhabitants to additional restraints, like forbidding people to smoke in their own homes (as one California town did the other day) or putting bicycle lanes in major traffic arteries. 

It's no surprise that, as Washington's grasp reaches ever further into what was formerly the business of states and localities, the regulations of political institutions outflanked by centralism grow ever more petty and designed largely to raise revenue through fines.

Checks and balances have been nearly superseded. Now it's laws on top of laws on top of laws.

1 comment:

YIH said...

Prior to WWII the phrase 'democracy' was considered repellent to the US government, the preferred term was 'republic' or 'constitutional republic'.
During WWII that changed, for propaganda reasons (you've likely heard the phrase 'our soldiers are fighting for democracy against the Germans and Japanese').
Post-war unfortunately the phrase stuck and was used as an excuse to expand 'democracy' first to blacks and later to even illegal immigrants (such as in California).
This notion that 'we are a democracy' is another bad idea that needs to be put to rest.