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Friday, December 5, 2003

American Exceptionalism: 6th in a Series, Suspicion of Big Government and A Truncated Ideological Spectrum

In the last article --- the 5th in this lengthy mini-series on US exceptionalism among industrial democracies --- a catalogue of specific American traits, political, economic, and cultural, was quickly set out in a fairly schematic, top-skimming way, along with a promise to do three things later on: flesh out the list, document each of the traits, and provide a convincing explanation as to why they exist and make the US differ, for good or bad, from other democratic countries. Time now to honor that promise. As things now stand, another four or five articles look like being needed before the series reaches the home-stretch and can gallop past the finish-line.

Our mental tasks in the series, remember, are strictly comparative; the American idiosyncrasies highlighted here make sense only when the standard of comparison is with other rich industrial democracies. Shift the standard --- compare, say, Communist-ruled China or the despotic Arab tyrannies with the US --- and this country and all other democratic industrial ones would turn out to share far more in common as a group than they diverge. That's true of the US and the EU and the other English-speaking democracies outside Europe; for that matter, it applies to Israel and Japan as well, both countries where a rule of law prevails --- in the former more than the latter probably --- as does an advanced high-tech industrial base.



And this article's current task?

Easy enough to say. As buggy connoisseurs might recall, the catalogue of distinctive American traits boasted some six in all . . . not counting a seventh item, a set of misconceptions widespread in the EU and elsewhere about the US. Forget those misconceptions for the moment; dealing with them is a future chore. Come to that, elbow two-thirds of these specific US traits to the sidelines for a while too --- until tomorrow or the day after --- and focus your attention on the first two traits only: a rooted mistrust of big government and a much narrower ideological spectrum compared to other industrial democracies. The two, as it happens, go hand-in-glove. Each reinforces the other. Documenting both, then explaining them in a snappy, convincing manner is where the beams of hot-lit buggy duty now bounce and glitter with taut focalized intensity. . . the opposite, oh joy of joys, of all the grindwork that has been diverting prof bug's mind the last few days. [Tag-on remark, /2003: What with the way the argument is spinning itself out in this current article, it now looks like the second trait --- a narrow ideological spectrum in American politics, whether past or present --- will have to await the next article before it can elbow and clapper-claw its way to hog center-stage attraction.]

 

AMERICAN IDIOSYNCRACY NUMBER ONE: A MISTRUST OF BIG GOVERNMENT

The Claim

Compared to other democratic countries --- even the remaining English-speaking countries --- Americans, by and large, dislike and mistrust big government . . . especially on the federal level, but to an extent locally and on the state-level as well. They always have, as Tocqueville noticed almost two centuries ago, and they probably always will.
There's one exception. At times, especially when menacing security threats from abroad suddenly erupt --- as at Pearl Harbor or the start of the cold war in the years right after WWII, not to forget the terrorist attacks of 9/11 --- a President and his administration are given a certain leeway for radical actions abroad. Otherwise, back home and with far rarer exceptions, multiple veto-centers that were purposefully set up by the innovators of the Constitution in 1789 operate to frustrate either bold departures from the status quo or a concentrated growth of government power. Once in a great while too --- as with Theodore Roosevelt's administration at the start of the last century in curtailing monopoly business power or with FDR's New Deal in the midst of the Great Depression (the most radical of which policies were overturned by the Supreme Court) --- a domestic emergency might allow a boldly ambitious president to get Congressional approval for some far-reaching policy innovations. About the only other big changes in US policies occurred in the first two years of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in 1965 and 1966; and lots of these changes --- though initially expanded by the Nixon administration as in affirmative action and compulsory school bussing to achieve it --- were eventually modified, overturned, or allowed to lapse, first in the Reagan era, then in the Clinton years of the 1990s.

Does the new Homeland Security department and the various anti-terrorist laws signal a big change here? It's a good question. Answering it soon enough will also be one of our tasks here.

[A tag-on quote of Toqueville's Democracy in America to illustrate his insights about the American people's unique political traits at the time, the 1830s: the people are sovereign, something new in the world, as opposed to monarchical and imperial power; and the efforts to dam in the state . . . which Tocqueville calls the Administration:

" In some countries a power exists which, though it is in a degree foreign to the social body, directs it, and forces it to pursue a certain track. In others the ruling force is divided, being partly within and partly without the ranks of the people. But nothing of the kind is to be seen in the United States; there society governs itself for itself. All power centers in its bosom; and scarcely an individual is to be met with who would venture to conceive, or, still more, to express, the idea of seeking it elsewhere. The Nation participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its legislators, and in the execution of them by the choice of the agents of the Executive Government; it may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so restricted is the share left to the Administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate." See the link]


 

The Evidence

Multiple kinds of data --- institutional, economic (think public expenditures), behavioral, and cultural: the latter captured in surveys --- underpin the American difference here. The same is true of a certain populism in American political life that has no equivalent anywhere else: direct primaries for choosing political candidates for all office; the election of all judges and district attorneys, directly on the local and state levels, indirectly through Congressional approval of all judicial appointees in the federal courts; citizen initiatives like referenda and recall petitions, something Californians are fully aware of these days; and anti-monopoly legislation and other populist and progressive-era moves to curb excessive business power too. For that matter, stretching back to the turn of the century and the impact of muckraking journalists, there's a high-potent role for the media and investigative reporting in US political life that has no full equivalent abroad either. Think here of the role of two such Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein --- played with brilliant panache in All the President's Men by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman --- in forcing Richard Nixon to resign office on pain of looming impeachment. Nowhere else in the democratic world has the media such an impact.

Similarly, nowhere else can citizens put referenda on a ballot and innovate laws or overturn existing ones. As to what happened in California last month when Governor Gray Davis was forced out of office on a recall vote, itself the result of a citizen initiative, it would be unthinkable anywhere in the EU, where most governments won't even let the citizenry vote early next year whether or not to adopt the new, far-reaching EU regional constitution . . . for all that's at stake in their political lives.

Then, too, as we'll also see, trim, noticeably curtailed ideological spectrum in American politics --- historically and even at present --- further anchors the suspicion of concentrated government power in this country.

 

Start With Institutional Matters

Consider the way the US system is constructed. It has a number of distinctive features, all of which hem in the growth of big government compared to other democratic countries, and for that matter --- by multiplying veto-centers in American political life --- aim deliberately at limiting almost all radical departures from the status-quo that we just mentioned.

(i.) An Unusually Potent Federalism

Federalism itself, though rare in the EU --- only Germany and Belgium among the existing 15 members (Switzerland, not a member, the only other in West or East Europe) --- prevails in three of the four overseas English-speaking countries: Australia, Canada, and the US itself. The latter trio is no surprise. Almost all Continental-size countries have such a large land mass and diversity of regions that federalism is very likely to exist: think of Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina in Latin America, Nigeria in Africa, India in Asia, and Russia.

What is unusual about US federalism is the strength of the regional political units: the individual 50 states, each with their own legislatures, a large scope for law-making, and important tax and regulatory powers. Similarly, only the US has a legal system, policed by a powerful and independent system of federal courts --- up to the level of the Supreme Court --- that can decide whether or not the federal government has encroached on the constitutional authority and legal rights open to the individual states in case a dispute about jurisdiction should emerge. Again, 170 years ago, Tocqueville was struck by the power of the Supreme Court here: in the Constitution, "the attributes of the Federal government were ... carefully defined, and all that was not included among them was declared to remain to the governments of the several states." That left it to the Court to decide what those attributes belonging to the federal government happened to be. And of course the civil war decided something else of crucial importance: whether the individual states could, if they wanted, secede from the union.

Nor is that all. Compared to local government everywhere else in the industrial democracies --- except for Switzerland --- both country and municipal governments in the US have unusual authority at their discretion too. Local school boards are one example; the decision to have public or private utilities another; specific environmental regulations yet a third; a big variance in local taxes one more. The ability of localities to elect district attorneys and municipal and country judges needs to be singled out here too.

 

Some Clarification

These latter points -- the strength of localities and even the 50 states in the Union and its advantages --- are worth briefly elaborating on. Two advantages bulk particularly large here.

First off, what such diversity allows is that someone who's unhappy living in one town or city or county or state --- whether a person, a family, or a business firm --- can then pick up and move to another town a few miles down the road, or 1000 miles north of San Diego at the US-Mexican border to to the California-Oregon border, or across the country if need be, in search of a better life. "I love borders," the Canadian-American journalist Mark Steyn recently observed:

" . . . the more the merrier – town lines, county, state, and, of course, national. Borders symbolize one of the few remaining constraints on government: You don't like the grade school here in town? Move ten miles up the road. You don't want to pay Vermont sales tax? Drive over the river and shop in New Hampshire. Arianna Huffington huffs against "tax loopholes for fat cats", but I'd say the ability to rent a post office box in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands is a "loophole" in one of the original 16th century senses – an aperture to let in light and fresh air. The fact that there's somewhere else to go to is the ultimate limitation on government. Borders give people choices – and, to put it in a bumper sticker, "I'm Pro-Choice And I Vote With My Feet". When starry-eyed utopians speak of a "world without borders", you can pretty much guess what kind of a place the one-world one-party state would be, with tax rates starting at 60%, about where they are in Sweden right now."

And secondly? It's a matter of effective policymaking, thanks to federal and local diversity.

In particular, what an extra-potent federal system allows is far more diversity and experimentation in social, environmental, and regulatory policies, with far quicker punishment for failures: hence swift, high-pulsating counter-pressures to revise or rescind the ill-thought measures. Oppositely, those measures that work out in some locality or one or two innovative states could then be copied quickly elsewhere . . . by other local or state government or on the federal level.

Think of California again. While the Bush administration rightly rejected the Kyoto Treaty on global warming as unsound and too costly, those states whose governors and legislatures want to enact certain environmental regulations in line with the treaty have done so . . . California among them. The same is true of certain cities around the country. Is this wise? Probably not in the buggy prof's mind, but that's not the point. The point is that if the regulations work out, fine. A future administration and Congress in Washington D.C. could then emulate the practice on a nation-wide basis. If, oppositely, they don't work out, then --- unlike what US citizens as individuals or as business firms could then do about them: essentially nothing, unless they want to move abroad to another country --- California employees, families, and business firms who are unhappy with the new regulations and reduction in their standards of living or profits could then quickly move to Arizona or Idaho. It happens all the time.

That's the beauty of strong federalism and local government, its diversity and its far quicker punishment of misguided or failed policies of an ambitious sort. Just as it allows, oppositely, for far more mobility in order to tap what appears to be far more beckoning opportunities elsewhere.

 

Federalism As A Social Laboratory

If you want to sum up the last few lines of thought, you need look no further than what one of the most prominent of US Supreme Court justices said on the subject --- the progressive Louis Brandeis, a pioneer at the start of the last century in promoting the use of social science in legal cases and urging an activist federal court system in promoting desirable change. Interestingly, by coincidence, the New York Times today, December 6th, ran a op-ed on Brandeis' views:

"Brandeis went on to make two more innovative points. True to his progressive values, he argued that government had an affirmative duty to seek out new approaches to the problems that confront society. The Depression, he wrote, had caused "an emergency more serious than war." Since "economic and social sciences are largely uncharted seas," he argued, the rational way to advance society was through "experimentation," the same "process of trial and error" as in the physical sciences.

"It was also evident to Brandeis that these experiments were best done at the state level. Even when the federal government is locked in inaction, "a single courageous state" can "if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory." It is "one of the happy incidents of the federal system," he noted, that when a state embarks on "novel social and economic experiments," it can do so "without risk to the rest of the country."


Note, as the Times' article itself argues, it's not just conservatives and moderates who now stress the value of federalism and decentralized decision-making in American life.

In particular, much of the liberal left --- a champion of a stronger federal government since the 1930s --- has begun to appreciate that as political power in Washington has become more conservative since the heyday of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society of the mid-1960s, lots of changes the left champions are being experimented with precisely in the laboratories on the state-level. It's true of environmental regulations, gay marriage (now legal in 13 states), a higher minimum wage, and the end of the death penalty (about a dozen states). And there's more. The states can also be laboratories of legal innovation and dynamism not found on the federal level. Think of all the huge financial scandals involving big business, auditing firms, and brokerage houses that burst into the limelight starting in 2001 --- not thanks to the lackadaisacal efforts of the Justice Department or the SEC. While they and all other federal regulators wiggled and waggled here, the Attorney Generals in certain states began their own high-profile criminal investigations, and so far with surging success --- most notably in New York state. There Eliot Spitzer, the state Attorney General (another elected office), has become a national hero in uncovering one huge corporate machination after another.

Even the giant Enron energy firm has been getting its comeuppance of later, with top corporate leaders indicted or found guilty in various local and federal courts alike. Two weeks ago, the bankruptcy court-appointed judge in Houston found that both the former CEO and chairman were both culpable in allowing the corporation's auditing scandals to occur and letting the firm end up bankrupt. So far, no criminal charges have been leveled. Whether or not they are, expect some civil suits to follow.

 

The EU's New Constitution An Example of Such Diversity?

Hardly. If it's adopted, it will concentrate far more power in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy --- regulation-mad in Brussels, and technocratic through and through (inspired by German and French statist traditions) --- that will make transparency, accountability, and diversity all the harder to sustain in those member-countries whose people still relish such merits: essentially, Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and Sweden, three of them outside the Eurozone, and Ireland pursuing pro-business policies that have remarkably benefited its people even as the Commissioners and technocrats in Brussels repeatedly chastise them on this score. If the constitution is accepted, to be more precise, about 15,000 bureaucrats in the Byzantine EU apparatus will swell in number and have even more legitimate, largely un-monitored freedom to spin out wondrous regulations such as a 125 page manual on the design of a bus-door and interior that, even when it was promulgated recently, was only half finished. An exaggeration? Just the opposite. Believe it or not, the proposed constitution explicitly lays down has 400 articles alone --- not the 10 in the US Bill of Rights, adopted in 1789 --- 'enshrining such novel "constitutional" rights as the right to "housing assistance" and the right to have your government take "preventive action to protect the environment" [Steyn].

Quickly note something that should be obvious here: If West Europeans themselves --- most of whom will not even be able to vote on the adoption of the new Constitution, only those in the member-countries whose governments deem it wise --- are largely happy living amid such a regulated, largely non-transparent political environment, fine. No American has a right to question their preference. All that can be legitimately said is that few Americans, even it appears the politically correct professors in Academia who have little first-hand knowledge about the overblown, powerfully intrusive regulatory and welfare states in the EU --- run by elite civil servants and bureaucracies poorly monitored even on the individual country level compared to what Congress does in this country (something we will return to momentarily) --- would likely be happy living in such top-down dominated societies, what with all their inlaid restrictions and closed-in constraints . . . never mind the widespread European taboos that severely punish failure of almost any sort. Some Americans would of course like to live there. And come to think of it, maybe the pc-pundits in our universities would too . . . provided they were part of the elite telling people how to live their lives in florid, over-emphatic ways, no clear end to them anywhere.

Quickly note another thing. The claim just set out that Americans wouldn't generally be happy living in the highly regulated, state-dominated societies in the EU isn't a subjective matter, the buggy prof's own preference, let alone his speculation about 290 million of his fellow citizens. In concretely striking detail, it's captured by one of the questions in the lengthy Pew Research Center's annual survey of global attitudes in 44 countries. In particular, question 34 asked respondents what they think about the following question:

"What's more important in a country: that everyone be free to pursue their life's goals without interference from the state or government, or that the state or government play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need. "

Markedly vivid, these responses speak for themselves. Note only how great the gap between American responses and those of Canada and the big-4 EU countries happen to be.



(ii.) A Potent Separation of Powers

Nowhere else among industrial democracies does the US system of a separation of powers exist --- though, of course, the Latin American countries, which gained their independence from Spain in the 1820s, emulated the political system of the then only republic they knew: the US's. All the other rich democracies use a parliamentary system, which fuses executive and legislative powers, and --- depending on the country in question --- allows a limited role at best for the courts to monitor broad constitutional matters, including the oversight of legislation and regulatory directives.

Since 1958, France has a unique system that blends parliamentary and presidential powers. A president is universally elected (since 1963), the only country in the EU where that is the case, who has far-reaching powers in especially foreign and security policy no matter which party or parties enjoy a majority in the Chamber of Deputies; at the same time, he has to appoint a Prime Minister and a cabinet that can muster a majority there governs the country in domestic matters. When the majority in the legislature is of the same party or coalition as the president, he has unusual powers even in domestic politics; when, oppositely --- the case between 1997 and 2002, for instance --- the opposition parties dominate the Chamber, then the president's authority is largely confined to foreign and security policies.

 

(iii.) A High-Voltage Role for the Judiciary

We've mentioned this politically charged, hyperkinetic role a couple of times already, and save for one thing, no need then to elaborate here. That thing? Essentially, beginning in the 1950's, the Supreme Court initiated an era of high-energy activism that, for good or bad, and with hot-wire controversy, turned the federal courts into an "instrument of massive reforms" . . . the quoted words voiced in the late 1980s by a former Attorney General, Archibald Cox --- then a Harvard law professor. The controversy has taken a predictable turn of late.

Until recently, liberals and moderates were generally satisfied with this court-inspired policy-making; lots of conservatives, and not just moss-backed reactionaries, weren't. Enter that new turn. Specifically, President Bush has been doing what Presidents Reagan and Bush-Sr. started in the 1980s, only with more vigor --- nominating lots of federal judges of a conservative bent who could use similar discretionary powers to overturn or hem in these judicially inspired reforms. In the upshot, more and more liberals and some libertarians on the right are worried about the ultimate outcome in the years to come. The more conservative judges emerge at all levels of the federal judiciary, the more the politically charged issues at stake --- affirmative action, or immigration, or gay rights, or the extensive powers of new anti-terrorist legislation, or the reach and authority of the new Homeland Security department --- will likely be decided, once they enter the courts, in a less liberal manner. Come to think of it, the decisive role that the Supreme Court played in deciding the outcome of the Florida vote in the last presidential election left most liberals unhappy, much as they naturally acquiesced in the decision . . . starting with Al Gore himself.

The key point to underscore here is how unusual the political and legal powers of the federal courts are among the democratic countries. Even presidents --- Nixon, Clinton, and for that matter Reagan during the Irangate affair of the mid-1980s --- can find themselves scrutinized, investigated, and threatened with serious damage, including impeachment, by Congress and a Special Counsel or at times, as Richard Nixon found to his dismay, by the Supreme Court rulings. Americans expect their leaders to be accountable. It's the only way to ensure that everyone is under a rule of law.

 

And the EU countries here?

That rule of law exists in certain of them --- especially in Scandinavia, Holland, and Britain. France, Italy, and Belgium are noticeable exceptions: powerful politicians and civil servants act as though they are above the law or expect to be handled with kid-gloves by the courts or for that matter the legislatures. Greece is worse, maybe in a league of its own. Portugal is an unknown. Spain does better than the other Latin countries.

And Germany? It's not clear. The evidence is mixed, but not encouraging. When the Christian Democrats led by Helmut Kohl were found to be implicated in political slush funds, little or no punishment actually occurred. He was fined, nothing more. According to the
BBC,

Mr Kohl had to pay a heavy fine for breaking the law, but he denied corruption, claiming that he had used the "slush funds" to support local branches of his party, the Christian Democratic Union, and not for personal gain. The facts were never independently verified because the court in Bonn decided that the national interest would not be served by pursuing them further. Once again, the independent observer is likely to conclude that the German justice system gives special rights to the very powerful.

Note the key phrase above: "the court in Bonn decided that the national interest would not be served by pursuing them further." That sounds tinny to the ear of an American who has witnessed how the public interest was served when President Nixon, elected in 1972 in a landslide victory, was forced to resign on pain of impeachment. And how the Reagan administration's top officials, including three National Security advisers, were grilled by Congressional committees and found to be lying and involved in cover-ups. And how Bill Clinton, stupidly perjuring himself in a judicial process, was actually impeached by Congress, then slid by in the subsequent vote.

How typical that might be of the rule of law in Germany isn't clear. The closest approximation was the case of Franz Josef Strauss, the powerful head of the Bavarian wing of the Christian Democratic Party, who was forced to resign from a the federal Cabinet in 1962 for legal transgressions. It didn't hurt his career much. He later returned as a finance minister in a subsequent Christian Democrat government and then headed the party, losing the general election to the Social Democratic candidate in 1980. He remained the premier in Bavaria for years afterwards, until his death.

 

And the EU regional executive and bureaucracies?

As for the European Union itself, we know how fraud and chicaneries have pervaded its workings . . . not just on the elevated level at the top, among the powerful 20-man executive Commission that oversees the entire system, but in EU officialdom at lower levels as well. And we know this because a couple of honest officials, disgusted with all the rampant corruption, croynism, and abuses of power all around them --- not to mention financial fraud in drawing up the EU budget and administering it --- went public as whistle-blowers. As a result, the entire Commission was forced to resign in March 1999, and an investigating body was set up to purge the new and future Commissions of these machinations.

Did it succeed?

Not so, according to one of the two major whistle-blowers: a Dutch EU official who himself resigned in August 2000, claiming that as far as he was concerned, it was business-as-usual. Among other things, he noted that none of the top officials besides the Commissioners who had been found to be guilty of "irregularities" were ever punished. Instead, all were promoted and continued to enjoy their power and perks. Worse, by then, a second whistle-blower --- the chief accountant of the EU budget system --- had been forced to quit her post after she went public and denounced what she termed the "shambles" that marked the entire budget system and its administration. As reported by the BBC, she warned specifically that the lack of budgetary transparency "gives big room for fraud" - and makes tracking it almost impossible.

Three years later, how much has improved? That isn't clear. Earlier this fall, it was discovered that another EU agency, its statistical body, had been engaged apparently in widespread budgetary corruption and fraud. The Commission itself seems to be honest enough, but there were cries for the EU president's resignation that have been sounded at the EU parliament. More to the point, the Commission has had to move to shake up the "anti-fraud" squad appointed to investigate this latest scandal, even as the squad had just chanced upon possible corruption at another EU agency, this one responsible for overseeing a huge budget for regional funds. Those who want more information on the EU's problems can find it in this lengthy up-to-date interview with the Vice President of the EU executive Commission, himself in charge of overseeing all the managerial and budgetary reforms to root out misconduct and criminality. Note that Neil Kinnock, the Commissioner in question, is himself a man of integrity whose dedication to making the EU more transparent and accountable, and hence honest and efficient, can't be questioned.



Before we move on, the jolting problems of an effective rule-of-law in France deserve to be highlighted. Sleaze, slushfunds, croynism, and self-enrichment seem rampant . . . something not new in French politics, but only recently publicized to the point that they are now a commonplace in French public opinion.

Go back to the spring of 2002, as good a starting place as any. The presidential election was looming, and the three investigating magistrates who were legally authorized to investigate the corruption and other machinations involving President Jacques Chirac --- especially when he was mayor of Paris in the 1980s and early 1990s, or presumably as president since 1995 --- decided to quit in frustration and go public with their complaints. Specifically, stonewalled at every turn in trying to access public records, call witnesses, and take depositions, the trio issued a proclamation that set out their list of grievances, one after another. Above all, they said flatly, they had discovered that France is essentially divided into two groups of citizens: the vast majority of Frenchmen who are subject to the rule of law, and the powerful in elected and appointed office who aren't. The three went further. They spoke outrightly of the "stench of corruption" that prevails in French political life and expressed concern for the future of their country.

In the two years since then, nothing has changed.

The first thing Jacques Chirac did after being re-elected was to ferret out any whistle-blowers in the civil service and force them out of office. Earlier, a former disgraced right-wing Premier who was a protégé of Chirac --- Alain Juppé--- was fined a trivial $20,000 or so for being found guilty of corruption while working with Chirac in Paris. Not to worry. His political future is intact. Even as he faces another trial for his old-boy-network machinations back in his protégé days in Paris, Juppé is energetically elbowing and shoving his way to the top and is now the chairman of the conservative party in power, the UMP . . . Chirac himself its presidential head. Then, too, there's the case of Roland Dumas . . . a former foreign minister and for that matter the head of the French equivalent of our Supreme Court. Up to his neck in a slime of corruption and croynism, Dumas was found innocent of the charges brought against him in a trial last winter. The decision, note, was rendered by three judges. No jury was ever summoned. The prosecutor spoke afterwards in digusted tones similar to what the three investigating magistrates had talked openly about in the spring of 2002: there is no rule of law applicable, it seems, to the powerful in France. See gordon-newspost.

Is this a right-wing affair only in France? Hardly, the 14 year presidency of Francois Mitterand, a socialist, saw an orgy of corruption and self-serving greed on a vast scale. . . including within Mitterand's family. His son, a gun salesman, emerged a billionaire thanks to all the lucrative contracts, never mind kickbacks, with French client-states in Africa and the Middle East. Apparently, according to the French press, Jean-Christophe would arrive in a capital city, see the President-for-Life or the despot in charge, announce that "Dad said this, Dad said that", and voila, big funds exchanged hands. Come to that, Roland Dumas had been foreign minister in a Mitterand-era government and was a close crony of the ultra-secretive man. Mitterand himself, it was learned after his death, had lied about his role in the Vichy era, and turned out to have a second marriage and family even when he was president . . . something illegal under French law. Or in any democratic country.


 

(iv.) Imposing Powers Enjoyed by Congress To Monitor The Executive Branch

No other legislature anywhere comes close to these powers. Remember here, the strength of a legislature in a political system hinges on four powers generally:

  • the ability to initiate all legislation
  • the ability to control the legislative agenda
  • the ability to approve, amend, or overturn all policies and laws involving taxes
  • the ability to monitor and criticize the executive branch, including the president . . . if need be with the power of impeachment


On all four counts, for good or bad, the US Congress stands out as a remarkably strong legislature, and that's true of both houses. By contrast, in parliamentary systems, the fusion of the PM and the Cabinet with a majority in the legislature means that the executive determines

(1) what the legislative agenda will be;
(2) what little or no scope parliamentarians themselves have to introduce significant legislation;
(3) why they, the PM and Cabinet, need not worry much about the legislature amending or overturning policies they want to;
(4) or why parliaments these days have very limited ability to act as watchdogs monitoring carefully the executive and, if need be, punish executive wrongdoers or force their resignation

Note the phrase in italics at the outset of the earlier paragraph. It's there intentionally, a means of signaling that Congress's independence and powers means that there is, at times, longer delays in the US system of government when it come to getting certain legislation enacted. From a European viewpoint, that might be a serious problem . . . especially when the policies or laws that need legislative approval are under a time-pressure. Filibustering is a further hindrance here at times. It can allow a minority party, or even a minority of the minority, to bog down Congressional votes for days, weeks, or longer, all depending. On a different level, back in the late 1930s, President Franklyn Roosevelt and his advisers recognized that war would the fascists in Europe and with militarized Japan was well-nigh inevitable, and his efforts at rearmament were repeatedly trimmed by a combination of Congressional resistance and isolationist sentiments in public opinion.

 

But wait

While all this is true, it can be overdone.

After all, from a general American viewpoint --- not one shared by all citizens, of course --- the delays when it comes to changing the status quo in bold, hurried manner are purposeful . . . part of the entire Constitutional process of separating the powers of government into three branches and ensuring that any major changes have at least been carefully investigated by powerful Congressional committees, which can, among other things, require all members of the executive branch except the President himself to appear before the committees and testify. The same is true of having access to all relevant documents, even those that come under the heading of national security; in that case, the committees --- say, those in intelligence --- meet in private and abridge their public reports. As for the example of FDR's defense and foreign policy initiatives being repelled or at least hemmed in before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it can be way overdone. Consider the evidence in retrospect.

Start with the parliamentary great powers in West Europe in the 1930s. Down to September 1st, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland and WWII started in Europe, neither British nor French appeasement policies were restricted by the House of Commons or the Chamber of Deputies; they were unwise, pure and simply. The initiatives open to their Cabinet governments led to folly. Similarly, in both countries, public opinion was staunchly opposed to war France throughout the late 1930s right through and after the Munich Agreement of September 1938; it changed only after Hitler tore up the scrap of paper --- Peace in Our Time Neville Chamberlain had said after the Munich Conference, waving the signed paper in the air --- and overran the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Until then, whatever some of the hawks in either government or on the backbenches like Winston Churchill might have wanted, neither the British nor the French governments had much more leeway in adopting outright military threats, let alone action, than Roosevelt did in the USA.

For that matter, if you look at the rearmament carried out by the three democratic countries until they entered the war, FDR's America was better prepared militarily in December 1941 than either the British or the French when Hitler invaded Poland.

The House of Commons had delayed conscription right down through 1938 and into 1939, not least thanks to the Labour Party's opposition, and the government could offer only 10 divisions to side with the French in the crucial battle for the lowland countries and France in April and May 1940. (Fortunately, after France fell, the British government did have good fighter planes and enough in number, plus radar, to allow the courageous British to win the air battle over the country during the summer and into the fall of that year.) The French, whose army was considered the equal of the Germans in strength and weaponry, nonetheless couldn't and wouldn't reinforce the light barriers to the north and west of the Maginot line along the Ardennes forests and river valleys where the Germans invaded. Why? The French high command did appreciate that the defensive line was too vulnerable there, and General Gamelin, the supreme commander, urged the French government in 1938 and well into 1939 to provide more funds for strengthening them. They weren't forthcoming. According to the left-wing Popular Front of socialists, radicals, and communists in power since early 1936, the new social policies and the lingering effects of the Depression meant that there was no extra money to be allocated for the crucial defense of the country. Was FDR any weaker? Actually in some respects, he did better.

In particular, if FDR was frustrated in getting Congressional approval for a larger army than the tiny, almost risible one that existed when we entered war with Japan and Nazi Germany in December 1941, he got enough funds to ensure that we did have a large carrier force --- ships, crews, planes, and airmen --- when the war began. The upshot? Within a few months after Pearl Harbor, was sufficient to defeat the Japanese navy in the critical battle at Midway in the summer of 1942. It was the beginning of Japan's prolonged defeat, a pivotal blow its military never recovered from.

Nor was that all. Despite isolationist sentiment after WWII began in September 1939, FDR was able on his own to get sufficient leeway from Congress for Lend-Lease, which kept the British isles and military machine supplied with US loans; and the supplies were carried by US merchant ship protected by American and British destroyers --- the latter augmented by a gift of large numbers of US destroyers to the embattled British. Initially, American destroyers were ordered to protect our merchant marine only as far out as Greenland; soon, though, FDR issued orders to extend the protection all the way to the British Isles, and that meant that US naval forces were fighting German submarines long before we entered the war itself in late 1941. [At the end of the war, Lend-Lease was cancelled, and so were the debts of the British and the Russians, the latter also supplied under the act after we entered the war.]


 

The key Congressional power

In the end, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of Congressional power in policymaking compared to the EU and other democratic parliamentary systems, that power fits in with American mistrust of big government. In turn, the weightiest of Congresses' powers --- its ability to serve as a watchdog of our executive, both the political and the bureaucratic sides --- has no equivalent anywhere in the other democratic countries: not even in Britain, where the House of Commons Select Committees have been able to strengthen their own authority the last two or three decades. The reference to committees is significant: legislators have to be specialized, have knowledge of the subjects they are supposed to oversee, have large staffs of professionally trained experts --- economists, defense and intelligence specialists, environmentalists, specialists on social policy, criminologists, and so --- funded by legislative enactment, and have the ability to arraign all members of the executive branch except the President himself. If, in turn --- as happens from time to time --- the President invokes executive authority, it is then left to the federal courts, right up to the level of the Supreme Court, to formally settle the dispute. Nowhere in parliamentary systems is there such openness. Probably the closest that approximates it are the Danes. As for Britain, the House of Commons doesn't have nearly the same number of specialized committees; the committees have woefully few specialists at their disposal for expert monitoring of the executive, and few funds for hiring more; and their ability to operate in a bipartisan fashion --- though improving --- and call any members of the executive is very limited by US standards.

The result? It's graphic. Americans have a good idea, generally, what their leaders and their top bureaucrats are up to, including their misdeeds. Ponder the weight of the evidence:

Right now, the American public knows a great deal about VIce President Cheney's background and fortune, whereas the Canadian public has no idea how it is that Jean Chretien, the recently retired Liberal Party Prime Minister, is a multi-millionaire after 40 years in office. Similarly, the French public has no idea what President Chirac's current fortune is --- though after decades in office in that country, with no private career ever, he owns, among other things, a lavish chateau in the Loire valley; nor does the French public know how it is that, in the 14 years when Francois Mitterand was the socialist president, his son ended up a billionaire selling arms to French-client states in the Middle East and Africa.

And of course nobody knows why it was --- after even Saddam Hussein's Soviet patron wouldn't supply him with nuclear technology in 1976, worried about what the brutal dictator might do with it --- Prime Minister Chirac at the time was only too happy to negotiate a lucrative contract with the tyrant. Hmm. You're left wondering, no?

Replies: 1 Comment

I was on a trip to Canada explaining to a Dutch fellow traveler the distinction between, and relative value Americans place on, natural rights guaranteed by our Consitution and political rights (statutory entitlements) created by the legislative branch. He couldn't conceive of the difference, saying "you Americans always go on about your natural rights." Having lived many years in Europe, the failure to make that distinction is to me the fundamental cultural difference between Americans and Europeans: Europeans view all of their rights-- their very freedom-- as emanating from the state vs. Americans who are born with certain inalienable rights (emanating from God) that must be safeguarded-- our Constitution preserves freedoms, it doesn't create them. For most Americans, statutory entitlements and obligations are additive, political benefits that we democratically agree to provide for ourselves to the extent they don't encroach on our Constitutional rights. We can agree to certain entitlements and obligations one day and change our minds the next. Our fundamental natural rights, we cannot touch.

In contrast, because Europeans view the state as a source of rights and freedoms, they are more politically attentive and ideologically diverse than Americans. Arguably Americans may be able to care less about politics because of an ingrained belief the government can't take away the really important stuff. For Europeans, where there's no distinction, all that the state gives it can take away, just as in the case for Americans' statutory entitlements. I also think that describes why Europeans would tolerate anything like the EU constitution that is all about enshrining statutory entitlements rather than the preservation of individual freedom.

That being said, I think you misinterpret somewhat the right's criticism of the left's view of the judiciary, which is that the left seeks to use (and has used in several prominent instances) our common law traditions to interpret into the Constitution certain affirmative rights/entitlements. That's what conservative jurists and legal watchers are so concerned about. Particularly now that the pendulum appears to be swinging back to conservatism in America: the left seeks to blur the distinction between natural rights and legislative entitlements just like the Europeans and thereby use the Constitution and the courts as a means to preserve and expand affirmative rights/legislative entitlements that are being slowly eroded by democratic outcomes. I think this is precisely the reason for the pitched battle over judicial nominees of the Bush Administration. The battle there isn't centrally about whether justices abuse the Constitution and the courts to preserve and expand affirmative rights/legislative entitlements that are liberal vs. conservative.



THE BUGGY REPLY



John:

Thank you for these stimulating and informative comments, most of which seem sound -- at least when the comparison is with the US and the Continental West Europeans. They merit, I believe, a detailed reply, and so you'll find your comments and that reply set out in the next article.

Posted by John @ 12/10/2003 12:23 AM PST