Monday, December 3, 2007

Thoughts Prompted by the Venezuelan Referendum

I'm not a political blogger. While I have pretty strong political views, I don't particularly want to put them on this blog for all the world to see. I suppose it's probably not hard to figure out what my leanings are from things I say incidentally, and from the various sites I link to in my posts; but if I started to blog on politics, I suspect I would have to spend several more hours a day brooding on things that make me mad, and that wouldn't be good for anyone--least of all me. So I do my best to leave political blogging to those who have the right temperament for it.

However, I do consider political philosophy to be fair game. What moves societies? What causes one person or party to have power, and another to lose it? What is the nature of political power? What causes a society to rise and then fall? What causes a government to rise and then fall?

About this time last year I was sent by my employer on a business trip clear across the country, to Lakehurst, New Jersey. (Yes, that is the site of the Hindenburg disaster. It's on the naval base there, and I got to see the site in person.) I took with me a little light reading material: Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. I joked to my friends that I was learning How To Win Wars and Influence People. (On the way home, I delved into C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain. By the time I got home, my brain was mush).

So I was watching the Venezuelan constitutional referendum this weekend with great interest, and hoping--for the sake of the Venezuelan people, and not just for our own benefit--that they would vote "No." Of course, I was remembering the old dictum that "He who casts a vote decides nothing; he who counts the vote decides everything." I would be astounded to find out that there weren't any behind-the scenes shenanigans to tip the election in the direction that President Chavez wanted, and was actually pretty surprised that the government allowed the official result to come out the way it did. Nevertheless, I think it's pretty clear that the Venezuelan people just dodged a huge threat to their civil and political liberties.


The most important questions in all of politics--and they have been the most important questions since before the time of Hammurabi--are those dealing with who has the power and how far does that power extend. Consider the following list of questions:
  • Who is the nominal head of the government?
  • Who is the de facto head of the government?
  • How do you make sure that the legitimate ruler is the one actually holding the power (as opposed to some "power behind the throne")?
  • How did a ruler become the ruler (Hereditary succession? Election? Acclimation? Coup?)
  • What is the legitimate scope of the ruler's powers?
  • How is a ruler prevented from misusing his powers or assuming powers he shouldn't have?
  • How can a ruler be removed from office (Election? Assassination?)
  • How does a civilian government maintain control of the military, when the military has all the guns? (This problem comes up a lot....)
  • In a democracy, how do you keep the ruler from just cancelling elections and staying in power indefinitely? (This happens more likely than we want to think about....)
  • In a divided government, how do you keep each branch of government from overstepping their bounds?
  • Given that liberties of the people are nearly always inconvenient to those in power, how do you keep those in power from eroding those liberties?

All these questions, and many more like them, can be summed up in the question: "Who makes the decisions around here?" And like I said, this is (and has always been) the most important question in politics, far more important than any mere policy question. Many, many wars have been fought over the question of who's in charge.

After all, consider what happens if you answer the above questions wrongly. Do you have an opinion on some political question--say, abortion? If your political system answers the above questions correctly, you may have a voice. You may have Representatives who are accountable to you, who will take your views and those of your countrymen into account when the laws are being written. But if your political system answers the above questions wrongly, you may have no say whatsoever in the political questions of the day. Worse, the government may well tell you what to believe, and visit ruin upon you if you are so impertinent as to object to their beneficent guidance. In fact, the government may visit ruin upon you if one day you merely look cross eyed at a low-level bureaucrat.

The genius of the American Constitution lies in the fact that the drafters started with the idea that whatever offices existed in the new government, sooner or later these offices would be filled with scoundrels. If the rights and liberties of the people were to be maintained, then, the government had to be designed from the outset to mitigate any conceivable abuse of power that anyone in any office might try to commit. And they recognized that it was not enough to say that "Branch XYZ shall be forbidden from doing this," it was necessary to outline a governmental mechanism that would actively prevent Branch XYZ from doing what it wasn't supposed to.

So our government has power split up into numerous competing centers. There are mechanisms to prevent each of the three governmental branches from overstepping the powers granted to the others. There are also mechanisms to prevent the states from overpowering the feds, and (prior to the amendment providing for direct election of the Senators) mechanisms to prevent the feds from overpowering the states. There are mechanisms to prevent the People from overpowering the system and instituting mob rule, and lots of mechanisms to prevent the government from overpowering the system and instituting a tyranny. It's not a perfect system, but it's a very robust system, that's actually pretty effective at capping the damage that we fallen humans can cause when we get into positions of power.

Now note that all these checks and balances are really inconvenient to people in positions of power. And for that matter, the very concept of liberty is inconvenient to rulers. Who do they think they are to tell me "No!" After all, if you're in a position of power and are trying to reform society according to some deeply held moral vision you have, it never seems fair that the People can respond to your latest attempt at "benevolent guidance" with a resounding Raspberry--or, let alone, that they can organize to throw you out of positions of power, ending not just your dreams of reform, but also your career, for crying out loud.

The drafters of the American Constitution understood all this, which is why the document spends so much of its time answering the above list of questions about power, and very little time addressing actual questions of policy.


So very often, would-be tyrants try to pull a fast one on their would-be subjects. They offer a bargain along these lines: "We will write these popular policy guarantees into the Constitution, if you will allow us to make these little structural changes that will allow us to carry out our new duties...."

So on the policy side of things, they offer guarantees about housing, or health care, or pensions, or wealth redistribution--things that are popular, that appeal to most people.

But on the "structural" side of things, they remove the governmental obstructions to their exercise of power. The late Venezuelan referendum would have secured the ability of El Presidente to pick whatever regional councilmen he wanted, and the ability of El Presidente to nationalize whatever property he wanted, and the ability of El Presidente to institute perpetual States of Emergency that would allow rule by personal fiat, and the ability of El Presidente to stay in office for life.... In short, any effective check against the power of the presidency was to be scrapped. At some point a ruler in this political situation would be able to scrap the constitution and simply do whatever he wished, and the People would lose any ability to stop it, short of rebellion (against the army, which of course has all the guns).

So I think that tentative congratulations are in order for the people of Venezuela, with the caveat in place that they're not out of the woods yet. After all, they're still being ruled by a man who doesn't suffer lightly even the slightest opposition.


But note that this sort of thing--the offer to institute popular policy guarantees in exchange for a weakening of the checks and balances crucial to the preservation of liberty--is not just limited to Latin America. My understanding of the European Constitution is that it fits this paradigm quite nicely. And there's plenty of stuff that emanates from Washington D.C. that fits this pattern, which I'm not going to go into at this time (since this isn't a political blog, remember?). :-)

We Westerners--Americans in particular, but most Western Europeans and Anglosphere members--have lived in relative security and prosperity for at least two generations. It's tempting for us to look at the world immediately around us and say, "we've arrived." One occasionally hears phrases such as "The End of History" bandied about. When we read history, we read of the terrible conditions that existed in times prior to our own, when whole continents were ravaged by wars; when succession crises could arise literally overnight and throw entire empires into disarray; when infectious diseases were common and famines were semi-common. And we blithely think to ourselves, "I'm really glad we didn't live then." But we just assume that these problems belong to the past. We figure we don't deserve to have to deal with famines or infections diseases; we've fixed those problems. The very thought of hostile armies tromping across our lands seems like geek fantasy--nothing to take seriously, since it's been well over a century since anything like that has happened here in America. We start worrying about things way up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but we tend to take the bottom layers of this Hierarchy for granted.

We only have the luxury of taking these bottom layers for granted because the people who came before us faced these problems head-on and came up with workable solutions. Our generation is not exempt from the laws of history, though, and there's nothing to keep these problems from coming back with a vengeance, except our own vigilance. Likewise, Americans have enjoyed liberties nearly unprecedented in human history, and we often take them for granted; but this is only because the drafters of the constitution didn't take them for granted. And if we want to pass on our liberties to the next generation, we don't actually have the luxury of taking them for granted. We have a responsibility to understand just how it is that our Constitution is designed to preserve our liberties, and recognize and oppose any scheme that tries to trade us attractive policy goodies in exchange for a weakening of any restriction on governmental power.

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