There’s an excellent article up at Cato Unbound by Anthony De Jasay. The theme, “Is Limited Government Possible?” touches on the inherent problems of attempting to limit the growth of government when every incentive exists for government to grow. De Jasay is European and his analysis seems to reflect a greater familiarity with parliamentary democracy than with presidential democracy (more on that in a bit), but his central point is perfectly sound.
Essentially, De Jasay argues that the structural limits we would like to enforce upon government are no more than speed limits. Constitutional and other structural limitations rely upon the government for their enforcement and are therefore undermined by their ultimate lack of enforcement. De Jasay likens these limits to a lady’s chastity belt. If the lady has the key, then the belt only delays the inevitable.
…self-imposed rules attempting to limit the scope of collective choices, such as constitutions, are not strong and though they may be observed if they are innocuous and only forbid government to do what it is not strongly interested in doing, they could hardly be expected to restrain government from doing what it is anxious to do or must do to preserve its tenure of power. The general absence from constitutions of restrictions of taxation lends some verisimilitude to this conclusion, though it would still have to be regarded as tentative.
The US Constitution, for example, prohibited an income tax, until it didn’t. It restrained federal spending and federal intrusion into matters unrelated to interstate commerce, until it didn’t. And famously, the Constitution was silent on the sale of alcohol, until it banned it, until it didn’t.
So what does limit the growth of government? De Jasay argues that there are only a few things: The susceptibility of the electorate to panic (The idea that things sometimes get so bad that everybody gets scared and votes for Thatcher or Reagan); Widely held beliefs (Here Jasay offers the universal, pre-Keynsian belief in the evil of deficits); and Campaign financing.
In the United States, it is still largely individuals and not parties that get elected. Party discipline is loose compared to Europe and candidates raise their campaign expenditure to a large extent by personal effort for their personal purposes. To the extent that campaign donations are sought from higher income donors, a candidate’s program must be more “conservative” and less redistributive than if donations came from all income groups in proportion to their income. If elected, a legislator has both a debt of honor to pay to his high-income donors and must establish a record that will help him gather donations on future occasions if there are any such.
Jasay argues that publicly financed campaigns result in more redistributive polices than privately financed campaigns because publicly financed campaigns tend to decrease the responsibility that a political coalition bears for its policies. It’s an interesting position, and certainly points up the problems inherent in publicly financed campaigns (unless of course, we imagine politics should be devoid of responsibility).
Is there nothing we can do to limit the growth of Leviathan? What about checks and balances? The “separation of powers?” De Jasay is not enthused,
One of the dangerously misleading phrases in this context that has penetrated political thought is the “separation of powers.” It is dangerous because it tacitly suggests that such separation can resolve the paradoxical feature of every constitution which the king enforces against himself (or a government against the mandate of its own majority). Montesquieu uses words that do not illuminate the distinction between separate functions of a government and separate repositories of power under separate control that may act independently of one another or even against each other. The latter kind of separation of what ultimately boils down to armed formations and firepower is difficult to conceive of within a single government. It is fairly obvious that Montesquieu did not mean it, and if we mean it when we use the phrase, it is that we do not really think of what the words could mean. The result is a blind belief that the separation of functions among legislature, executive, and judiciary contains within itself a solution to the constitutional paradox of real, though perhaps not logico-legal, self-reference.
This all seems a little bleak. I’m reminded of a particularly depressing conversation I once had with Robert Higgs (author of Crisis and Leviathan) in which Dr. Higgs despaired of the chances for real reform. Unfortunately, I think both Higgs’s and De Jasay’s arguments are compelling. But I’m an optimist, so I’ll keep plowing on, doing what little I can to try and increase the prospects for liberty.
I also think that De Jasay’s continental focus colors his arguments. In a parliamentary democracy, a government is literally “built” with a coalition of different parties, and aside from the entrenched bureaucracy, the ruling coalition oversees all aspects of the government (legislative and executive with the power of judicial appointment or oversight). The coalition is in complete power and is answerable only to its members and constituents. It is only limited by the degree to which it must appease competing interests within its own coalition.
In a presidential system, however, it is possible that different coalitions may control different parts of the government at the same time. (Just as Republicans control the executive branch while Democrats control the legislature.) In practice this can lead to a substantial reduction in the growth of government. Not actual reduction, mind you, just a reduction in the rate of growth. Bi-partisanism is too easy and too common.
And of course, the founders envisioned an even stronger difference: the Senate and the House were intended to represent fundamentally different interests. But that distinction has been lost for some time. Again, the constitution limited government until it didn’t.
Ultimately I think De Jasay underestimates the potential of structural limitations to slow the growth of government. I think growth may be slowed in relation to the extent that government can be divided against itself. Any successful democratic society must learn to balance interests and if those different interests can be set against each other, then we can hope for at least a kind of detente. (Perhaps akin to the adversarial system we have in law?)
We must recognize and acknowledge that the establishment of government is an inherently precarious business; eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Erecting institutional and structural checks that serve to balance competing interests may not be a panacea, but it should make radical change more difficult.
The challenge is to devise structural limits that put those interests that are least likely to join together at odds with each other. For example, a wealth qualification that would divide eligible voters; the wealthy vote for Senate, the less wealthy for the House, no one may vote for candidates in both houses in the same election. Those limits, of course, may well appear undemocratic (and decidedly materialistic!), but it may be that pure democracy is not the ultimate goal or good. A stable, healthy republic may serve its citizens better than unfettered democracy (That may sound incendiary at first, but really it’s just common sense. Unfettered democracy allows for the will of the majority to trample the rights of the minority; the central purpose and aim of a constitutional republic is to restrict the power of the majority.)
Of course, there are many difficulties inherent in any attempt to set vested interests against each other, not least of which is the possibility that it may not be possible to divide an electorate into stable interest groups. Class conflicts may not actually exist in such substantial force as to qualify as an effective distinction and it should go without saying that demarcating interests along inessential lines–such as race or sex–is deplorable. Furthermore, it may not be possible to effectively prevent cross-interest collusion–even if such stable and competing interests could be identified. After all, the incentives for coalition building would remain as strong as they are now.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that power creates its own incentives. The greatest restriction on the abuse of power is an informed and principled electorate. Or in other words, ideas matter. Politicians may act to maximize their own influence and power over time, but if such activities were more scorned than applauded, the risk of a politician over-reaching would lessen. (Witness the recent reaction to earmarking.) Public opinion and popular sentiment can and does change. Witness the abolition of slavery and the extension of suffrage to women.
In any event, this analysis only serves to underscore the inadequacy of the current candidates for President. Both Hillary and Obama endorse policies that would further erode what little restrictions currently serve to keep the growth of government in check. And so does McCain.