Checks, Balances, and Gridlock

12 November 2012


It has become one of the most familiar complaints today on the US political scene that the political system of the US is mired in permanent gridlock. Nothing gets done because the people are divided and vote into office individuals with vastly differing agendas; the two-party system ensures that the two parties are always at each others’ throats, vying for money, votes, and influence; the corrupting influence of money in the political process has meant that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence upon public policy; the never ending stream of laws and rules and regulations that issue from the Capitol mean that no business has a stable operating environment, hence tremendous amounts of money are spent by industry in lobbying the government to get the regulations it prefers. Nothing gets done, is the complaint. What this complaint really amounts to it this: the government doesn’t get anything done. But, really, should we count on the government to get anything done? Do we want the government to have to power to efficiently put its plans into practice?

I‘ve got news for the complainers: the US political system was designed for gridlock; it’s supposed to be that way. The checks and balances that constitute the US political system were intended to prevent the government from functioning efficiently. Tyrannies function efficiently, but that isn’t a model for any government to follow. However, tyrannies often can point to dramatic short term achievements — Stalin’s transformation of the Soviet economy in the 1930s when Western countries were mired in depression, and Hitler’s regimentation of Germany after the chaos of the Wiemar Republic — and as a result of these short-term, unsustainable accomplishments there have been many commentators in democratic countries who have looked with envious eyes at the accomplishments of dictators and tyrants (as today they look east with obvious China Envy).

I have written several posts in which I have attempted to frame the US political system in the context from which it derives historically: as an explicit and systematic manifestation of Enlightenment political thought (cf. From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), deeply indebted to Montesquieu, Locke, and Hume, and itself a reaction against extreme statist philosophies of the early modern period such as that of Hobbes as well as a reaction against the excesses of the religious wars in Europe following the Reformation (cf. The Nation-State: a Sketch of its Origins). Since much of this historical context has been lost, and Americans are famously unconcerned about history (Henry Ford said “History is bunk”), Americans by and large, including American political leaders, have little idea what their country is about (i.e., what the Framers were trying to do) and many Americans are openly hostile to Enlightenment political ideas and ideals.

Because of the relative absence of Enlightenment ideals in contemporary political discourse, we have instead the vulgar “ideals” that have emerged in the meantime: celebrity, wealth and its conspicuous consumption, temporary political triumphs of the “zero sum” sort, and the ephemeral (but perennially attractive) blandishments of a youth culture that celebrates a Dionysian frenzy of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (which, these days, is less about rock-n-roll and more about rave, industrial, trance, techno, and the like). Anyone can realistically aspire to these ideals, and many in fact do, but the ideals of contemporary mass consumer society, like any ideals, have their disappointments. In the US today anyone has a great deal of freedom to live as they like, but you cannot have any impact on contemporary events unless you have money, fame, or connections — preferably all three, but a sufficient quantity of any one of these usually translates into the other (which Joseph Fouche of the now-defunct blog Committee of Public Safety characterized as “all power is fungible”).

Being anonymous or poor in a world in which fame and money are the currency of effective action means being denied the possibility of effective action. This is one source among many of the feeling of alienation that is so common in industrialized society — the feeling of being a powerless cog in an enormous and uncaring machine. (I wrote about this in Fear of the Future.) In such a society, the entire life of an anonymous individual is reduced to the liberty of indifference, which is better than no liberty at all, but not the role in which most individuals see themselves.

One way to address the disaffection and alienation of anonymity in industrialized society is to make individuals feel a genuine part of mass social movements. This is the path of totalitarianism, which, like earlier forms of tyranny and dictatorship, is not sustainable. However, at a much attenuated level, there any many people in the US political system who look to the president to “lead” and are frustrated when little effective leadership is forthcoming. I suppose that there are many people who intuitively feel (even if they would not state it in these terms) that the US President represents what Rousseau called the “general will” as opposed to the mere “will of all” and that it is the responsibility of the President to lead in accordance with the general will and for the people to follow in the same spirit.

In recent history, nation-states have in fact been at the vanguard of the greatest undertakings of human beings, not least because nation-states have the resources at their command that make it possible to undertake expensive and difficult enterprises like mass warfare and space travel. If some other political paradigm (other than the nation-state, that is) prevailed in the present, then that institution would have the resources to undertake great enterprises. The important thing to keep in mind here is that there is nothing that is necessary about the predominance of the nation-state in human affairs, or indeed even the predominance of some political institution.

FDR and Keynes, each in their very different ways, contributed to a climate of opinion in which the nation-state is the locus of human action, shifting the perception of the power and agency of the state as something distant and relatively unimportant to being the central fact in the lives of industrialized masses. FDR greatly expanded the scope and role of the federal government in the lives of ordinary US citizens, and Keynes formulated the economic doctrine that the state had an obligation to insert itself into the economy, no matter how disastrously many of these interventions turned out to be. These foundational developments, along with a string of recent Supreme Court rulings that have made a mockery of the Bill of Rights, have consolidated the nation-state as the central power in the lives of US citizens, even if no one knows what that nation-state is supposed to represent.

The idea that the initiatives that move history forward will be government initiatives is fundamentally flawed, and, since it is fundamentally flawed, in the fullness of time it will reveal itself as flawed through the bitter disappoints that it delivers to its true believers. In the meantime, however, there is so much momentum behind the idea of the nation-state and its centrality in the life of peoples that its less-than-optimal performance will be sustained by this momentum for quite some time to come. There will be plenty of blame to spread around to a wide variety of targets before people will come to realize that the nation-state, even in its most intrusive nanny state incarnation, is not going to come and hand you a wonderful life on a silver platter.

Individuals will ultimately be the agents that move history forward. We must look to ourselves to become such individuals that are capable of moving history forward despite the best efforts of officials and bureaucrats and functionaries who presume to speak on our behalf. We need only stop believing in their pronouncements in order to begin the process of freeing ourselves from the the grip of statist omnipotence.

It is a good thing that the US government should be systematically stymied in any grand initiatives it might undertake; I don’t think that many people would enjoy living in the world that would result for the efficacious prosecution of the government’s grand plans for our future. The twentieth century provided us to all too many examples of utopian ideals, which, when put into practice, issued in dystopian realities. (cf. Addendum on Unintended Consequences) I remain hopeful in proportion as the government is weakened by its own infighting.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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