Feature Not a Bug

I find it pretty hilarious that folks on the left suddenly feel the US is ungovernable, largely because they have not been able to pass a couple of complicated and risky legislative initiatives.  Was the US ungovernable when Bush couldn't pass Social Security reform?   It seems that showing leadership on a national scale with diverse interests is a tad harder than running a grad school policy round-table.  Oddly, the left seems befuddled by actual diversity of opinion, rather than the faux diversity with lock-stepped beliefs they built in academia and among themselves.

I don't read Real Clear Politics much but I thought Jay Cost makes a good point:

Let's acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III's government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.

The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.

The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind - but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.

The President's two major initiatives - cap-and-trade and health care - have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That's a good thing.

One of the roles of the President is to bring some adult supervision to his party in Congress.  Bush failed on this, allowing Republicans to run rampant in earmarking excess, and Obama has if anything been even worse on this dimension.  He routinely remains aloof from the legislative details (some would say he just got rolled by Nancy Pelosi) and then proceeds to speak as if the actual bill matches his grand words and promises when it is obvious to all that it does not.

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    What they mean by 'ungovernable' is 'I was unable to get my favourite legislation passed'.

  • rxc

    The constitutional design of the US government is deliberately intended to make it hard to get anything done, unless there is truly a wide agreement among all parts of the country, not just a majority of the people. This is a feature, not a bug. It is well known to the bureaucrats who work in Washington, because it is explained in exactly this language to new hires. When you try to re-orient 1/6th of the entire economy, you are going to have a hard time because there are so many competing and opposing interests at stake.

  • Bob Smith

    The difficulty in getting things done is why Progressives spend so much time attacking and infiltrating the judiciary. Want to spend more money on schools but the voters say no? No problem, get a judge to order it. Don't want to spend money compensating people for regulatory losses in the value of their property? No problem, get judges to rule that less than 100% takings don't have to be compensated.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    He routinely remains aloof from the legislative details (some would say he just got rolled by Nancy Pelosi) and then proceeds to speak as if the actual bill matches his grand words and promises when it is obvious to all that it does not.

    But the major difference in outcome here is that when Herr Obamalini does it, the fawning and besotted press runs interference for him, or worse, tries to make him look good.

    [And many of us do not believe he understands either the legislative process, or the details contained within those proposals.]

  • Jose

    So sad how Obama wants to destroy this country. As a person who fled a socialist country - and waited legally to come here, and now to see what is happening - this makes me sick. Freedom is not free. The US constitution is the document that must be adhered to at any cost. If we go down the wrong road, I can tell you - there is no other place to go. Reagan says it best.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yt1fYSAChxs

  • Gil

    At what point was the British rule 'tyrannical'? There's no proof that they acted 'uncivilised' towards the American colonies. The other British didn't suffered under a 'tyrannical rule'

  • IgotBupkis

    > The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another;

    One subtle element of those checks and balances is that they are based on a triumvirate of power, not a face-off. The SCotUS, the PotUS, and Congress form a defacto triumvitate. Such triumvirates have operated effectively throughout history, from the First Roman Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompeius Magnus(aka "Pompey") and Marcus Crassus), which, upon the death of Crassus led to a civil war between the remaining two factions, the end of which represented the defacto end of the Roman Republic.

    SF author James P. Hogan details how it worked in the USSR in one of his books (not a great book mind you, but the tale is interesting):

    "The strongest and most rigid geometric figure is the triangle. From the
    Eiffel Tower to the framework of a railroad bridge, engineering uses
    triangles universally to produce structures of strength and stability. The
    same is true of political structures. Political systems based upon the
    division of power and the interplay of three balancing forces have been the
    most stable and enduring throughout history.
    The political system of the USSR was based upon such a triangle of forces.
    The three corners of the triangle were the Party, the Army, and the KGB. Each
    of these possessed enormous power, but the power of each could be exceeded by
    the combined strength of the other two. Of the three, the Party had the
    fewest resources for self-defense in and open conflict, but to counter this
    weakness it had the lever at its disposal of authorizing the appointment of
    all officials -- every general of the Army and every colonel of the KGB could
    be posted, promoted, and demoted only with the approval of the Central
    Committee. This right was supported by both of the Party's rivals; for if
    that privilege were to pass to either of them, then the other would be in
    mortal danger, and both of them knew it.
    The system thus functioned as a tripod that would stand, provided that none
    of the legs tried to extend itself too far. Whenever this began to happen,
    the other two immediately intervened to chop off the excess.
    When Stalin died in 1953, observers concluded that Beria, the feared head of
    the predecessor of the KGB, would take command. He possessed files on every
    senior Party official and general that would have enabled him to put any one
    of them before a firing squad. But it was this very power which destroyed
    him. The Party and the Army, understanding their joint predicament, executed
    the chief executioner and eliminated the heads of his security apparatus. But
    this released one of the leashes around the Army's neck. Marshal Zhukov, the
    legendary commander of WWII fame, began acquiring extraordinary powers at
    home and abroad, and demanded the removal of all political commissars from
    the Army's units -- to shake off the leash remaining. The Party and the newly
    formed KGB promptly closed ranks, Zhukov was dismissed, and the military
    machine drastically pruned. This extended the Party leg of the tripod to an
    alarming degreee, and in response, the impossible happened, when the two
    mortal enemies, the Army and the KGB, united to bring down the Party's head,
    Khruschev, who fell almost without a sound. And in the era that followed...
    the secret of Brezhnev's survival lay in his skill at maintaining the
    triangular balance, restraining any two of its sides from combining against
    the third."
    - James P. Hogan, 'The Mirror Maze' -

    One might also consider the French reasoning behind providing Red China with nukes. By this time, the ChiComs had split with the Soviets over ideological differences, which allowed historical enmities to rise. Following the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis, bringing China into it guaranteed that there would be no "winner" of a nuclear war, only two losers and the one that stayed out of it, who would be far better off. Questionable though it may have seemed at the time, it was certainly followed, for whatever reason, by the kind of stability that such triumvirates are known for.

    You could also make similar claims with regards to adding Pakistan to the nuclear club -- with India and China, also historic enemies, facing off, Pakistan becomes a triumvirate with them, as well. And tensions between the three remain, if not ideal, then at least reasonably bounded.

  • Sam L.

    Thing is, here, they don't want to govern--they want to rule. If they wanted to govern, they'd work to get Repubs on board, doing some horse trading, sweetening the deal, giving them a piece of the action. And clearly, those are things the Dems won't do.

  • IgotBupkis

    > At what point was the British rule ‘tyrannical’? There’s no proof that they acted ‘uncivilised’ towards the American colonies. The other British didn’t suffer under a ‘tyrannical rule’

    It was no doubt as "decent" as any dictatorial rule could be. The Brits did not see themselves so much as conquerors as much as adults taming children. But they did see their external subjects as inferior all around, and this was shown by their language for those they ruled as much as anything -- "wogs" and so forth.

    And this attitude, between competent adults, is indeed a form of soft tyranny.

    It's also exactly the kind of oversight the Left wants to have over America.

  • KTWO

    The British rule was not harsh. Tyranny may have been the rallying cry but it did not account for the behavior of the colonists.

    IMO the problem was that most of the colonists had long before severed ties from Britain or had never formed them. They were thought of themselves as citizens of a colony. Virginians, etc.

    In New England the problem was religion. Pilgrims and various other protestants and were not about to fall under the official Church Of England again. The area had been ruling itself for about a hundred years with virtually no supervision from Britain. Nominally they were British colonies. In reality they were not British people.

    New York and New Jersey were founded by the Dutch and taken by force by the British. A good portion of the population there had no love for or historic connection with Britain.

    Pennsylvania had many Germans with no natural attachment to Britain. And the Quakers dissented from the Church Of England. That is exactly why they were in Pennsylvania to begin with.

    Georgia was started by British Catholics. Catholics were heavily discriminated against in Britain and many left. Look at Maryland and Delaware too.

    The colonies had a veneer of British rule. It was quite shallow but not challenged until Britain started taxing the colonies directly, supervising trade, and steadily tightening their rule after about 1750. That was not tyranny but it was firmer than the colonists had ever known or expected.

    Britain may have had good reasons, they certainly thought so, but they overplayed a weak hand. It turned out they were not quite strong enough to bully or wise enough to compromise.

    They were also somewhat unlucky, the rebellion was a very close contest. In the end they quit and went home. They faced facts, they would still win some battles but not the war.

  • http://www.thewhitedsepulchre.blogspot.com The Whited Sepulchre

    Ungovernable.
    What is the downside?

  • Vangel

    "One of the roles of the President is to bring some adult supervision to his party in Congress. Bush failed on this, allowing Republicans to run rampant in earmarking excess, and Obama has if anything been even worse on this dimension. He routinely remains aloof from the legislative details (some would say he just got rolled by Nancy Pelosi) and then proceeds to speak as if the actual bill matches his grand words and promises when it is obvious to all that it does not."

    I think that you are confused. All spending needs to be earmarked so that Congress, which is responsible for it, knows where every penny goes. The idea to suggest that spending decisions made by unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington is preferable does not pass the smell test. What the US needs is a much smaller government that does not have the ability to tax and spend as much as it currently does.

  • Les

    The federal political system is optimized more for Gaining power than Wielding it. Unfortunately the default action of government when it cannot wield power well is to wield power poorly rather than not wield power at all.

  • http://http//www.tinyvital.com/blog John Moore

    The scary thing is I just heard a guest on Fox News saying that the Dems planned to use the reconciliation process to push the health care "reform" through, even though it will cost them 60 house seats.

    These folks are really, really dangerous.

  • Ken

    Not near ungovernable enough, but keep hope alive.

  • http://www.ilovebenefits.wordpress.com ilovebenefits

    Excellent piece. As usual you make people think. The construct of the US government is regarded as one of the most elegantly constructed. What it might have been to actually talk with the framers. http://www.ilovebenefits.wordpress.com

  • markm

    Gil, one specific complaint of the colonists was the high-handed ways of the British customs agents. Not only were the taxes, and especially the trade regulations, slanted to enrich British merchants at the expense of the colonies, but in attempting to enforce these laws on what must have often seemed like a whole nation of smugglers, the customs agents regularly ransacked peoples' homes on mere suspicion.