Free in spite of our Constitution, not because of it

pic_nrd_20140721_postellIn case you missed it 2 months ago, this is an interesting book review that seems especially apropos now:

(I)n this brave new world of executive government, parliamentary systems “better protect political freedom”: “An American is apt to think that his Constitution uniquely protects liberty. The truth is almost exactly the reverse.” Because presidential systems are more likely to slide into despotism than parliamentary systems, we are actually free in spite of our Constitution, not because of it.

In support of this thesis, Buckley notes that “parliamentary governments, which lack a separation of powers, rank significantly higher on measures of political freedom” than presidential systems. Moreover, prime ministers are monitored more vigorously by legislatures and are constantly dependent on a legislative base for support (rather than elected for a term that they are essentially guaranteed to serve). Most important, parliamentary systems contain fewer checkpoints and therefore less gridlock than presidential systems. The checks and balances are actually “Madisonian Infirmities” that render the legislative process inefficient and induce us to turn to a dominant executive for leadership

In our system, legislators are not reliant on their parties, but “have their own power base, separate from the national party,” because they are elected in districts with local interests rather than a national election. Their impulse is to follow prevailing opinions back home rather than the national interest, which might be imposed by leaders of a strong national party. Instead of being obedient to party leaders implementing a national agenda, today’s Congress is decentralized and atomistic, pursuing each district’s local interests (which tend to favor increased spending and cronyism). Coordinating all of these independent legislators without any sticks or carrots turns out to be a thankless and futile task. Into this leadership vacuum, the president is all too willing to leap, assuming the persona of the only adult in the room, the only person who looks after the American people as a whole.

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One Response to Free in spite of our Constitution, not because of it

  1. Paul Marks says:

    I do not think either system protects freedom very well. Although it would have been better had the Congress simply been representatives of the State legislatures (as the Senate was till 1913) and subject to recall by State legislatures. And the head of the Executive (the “President”) simply a manager appointed by the (appointed by the State legislatures) Senate. But all that is a Federalism point – not a Parliamentary point.

    It would be better if the power of an American President was closely defined (as the power of the Governor of Texas is – under the Constitution of 1876) the Federal Constitution is rather too vague – and Presidents (especially Comrade Obama) have ruthlessly exploited the loopholes.

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