Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On the Fragility of Democracy

I never met a government I liked, past or present. Governments may start with noble goals but loose their original purpose too easily.  ‘survive and expand’ for the benefit of a small group becomes the goal.

This happened in Greece (ancient) and Rome. Athens became more than just another city state, as the keeper of the city-states’ war funds. Athenians used monies that didn’t belong to them to build beautiful statues, and expand power. Original principles were lost, Athens grew weak and was conquered by barbarian tribes.

The Roman Republic had more checks and balances than ours does.  To prevent the situation of an Uber-president, the highest office was held by two consuls each of which could veto the decisions of the others. The executive branch was a group , the senate, and was not allowed to own or run businesses while in office. The legislative body was a direct democracy;  all citizens debated proposed laws which were read aloud prior to voting.  A complex veto system further limited power of specific government bodies.  In emergency situations, when a single leader was needed, the senate declared the emergency and gave temporary power to the consuls- one of them became ‘dictator’ for no more than six months. [This avoided the conflict of interest if the same person that declares the emergency becomes the dictator]

Roman democracy has been criticized in textbooks because it was not a ‘real’ democracy. The senate was not elected. Women and slaves were not included.  Nevertheless, it’s checks and balances deserve a hard look because they are the most extensive ones that ever existed. Nevertheless,  all the checks and balances in the world couldn’t save the Roman Republic when masses of furious unemployed and overtaxed Plebeians, who had lost their jobs to slaves  (many former soldiers,) formed populist groups, rioted and found the senate willing to appease and unwilling to compromise.   In the U.S, the biggest threat to democracy comes from the White House, in Rome it came from the senate. The results could be the same.

Checks and balances are necessary in a democracy but they are no guarantee.   The original purpose of any arm of government can always morph into self interest of one group with power.  Democracy may be the best of governments, but in reality , it is fragile. The rules that keep it in place are only as strong as peoples’ commitment to underlying principles and the democratic philosophy. [Maintaining this commitment in a country as diverse as ours is especially difficult.]

The erosion of checks and balances under President Obama should concern us. This is not, however,  the doing of one President. Would it have been possible for an executive to violate each of the bill of rights, to pass laws by using  ‘executive orders’ without repercussion, to make treaties without congressional approval if the stage had not been set before?

It’s becoming harder and harder  to find aspects of our lives, from education, to work, to health, to say what you wish (as long as it’s politically correct) to privacy, to the right to property that are not controlled by government. This process did not happen overnight. There are numerous contributors that have been eating away at our core philosophy and way of life for a long time.

The elimination of the gold standard, the power of the Fed, the unlimited involvement of government in the economy, out of control regulations that nobody understands but everyone is forced to comply with, the president’s power to use money it doesn’t have without enforceable limits, the alignment of the press with one party and ideological changes in our educational system all contributed to the erosion of our commitment to freedom, liberty and individualism in principal and practice.

The Conservative solution is go back to the constitution.  That would be a TREMENDOUS improvement and very hard to accomplish. We face a government today  that is very committed to maintaining the status quo and is structured with layers of agencies and bureaucracies that keep things the way they are.

If this country is a democracy, citizens have ultimate power. If the majority of people in a country want one thing and the government does another, we have a problem. In a real world, this will happen sometimes - people in government aren’t the most selfless sorts -- but not all the time, not most of the time, and not a lot of the time.  A situation in which most citizens do not agree with what their government is doing is a prescription for trouble.

Changing this is a tall order - not the sort of challenge people ask for in life. Hopefully knowing what we are up against is a start.

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