Arnold Kling  


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Our parent site, Econlib, now has a sister site, The Online Library of Liberty, a library of classic works. You can browse Books and Essays.

Among the writers whose work is presented and discussed is Thomas Hobbes, who offered a contractual theory of a state as a way of protecting ourselves from the "war of all against all." My latest essay tries to follow in that tradition.

The Constitution can be viewed as an attempt to balance two risks. One is the risk that the government will be too weak to protect individual liberty and property. The opposite risk is that the government watchdog will turn on its master, becoming the people's oppressor rather than their protector.

Today's surveillance technologies pose an analogous problem. If left unused, they could leave our country vulnerable to mass murder, blackmail and defeat. However, if we casually turn surveillance powers over to existing government agencies, such as the FBI, the risk of abuse is unacceptably high.

I doubt that Butler Shaffer would agree with my approach. He writes with scorn about what he calls

the most pervasive of utopian schemes: constitutional democracy. Most Westerners have an unquestioning attachment to the belief that political power can be limited by the scribbling of words on parchment! Most of us have been conditioned in the myth that a so-called "separation of powers" among the various branches of government will generate a competition assuring that governmental authority will not be exceeded. Students of law and political science become rhapsodic over the writings of 18th and 19th century philosophers who were the architects of such air castles!

For Discussion. Is Constitutional democracy a solution to a trade-off, or a utopian scheme?

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
amcguinn writes:
Most Westerners have an unquestioning attachment to the belief that political power can be limited by the scribbling of words on parchment!

Government is limited by custom, not by what Shaffer calls "words on parchment". In countries such as Britain, the limitations are explicitly matters of custom. In the United States, it is custom that requires governments to stay mostly within the written constitutional limits. Any leader of any country can declare himself absolute ruler "for the duration of the emergency" -- it is a question of whether the army and the people follow. Courts and constitutions are relevant only to the extent that they influence the army and the people.

Eric Krieg writes:

Why can't it be both utopian and a solution to a trade-off?

What could be more utopian than to try and anticipate human failure and devise a political system that gets around it?

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Constitutions are basic Contracts with the people, but it is left to the Government to enforce such contract. It is decidedly Utopian in character, especially as all Constitutions prohibit insurrection and rebellion, when and if the Government does not enforce the Constitution. Is it also a Trade-0ff, as a previous Post has suggested. Probably in that it is a bribe to political segments of the Public, to avoid further accrimination. lgl

Bernard Yomtov writes:

If I understand Mr. Shaffer's point, which I am by no means sure I do, he complains that constitutional democracy is no good because it doesn't work perfectly. Doesn't that make him a utopian?

It seems to me that constitutional democracy works pretty well lots of places. Yes, it often fails, and it's not clear we know the conditions for success, but it's paid off spectacularly for a big chunk of the world.

I have to agree with Eric here. I don't see the necessary conflict implied in the discussion question.

prag writes:

my long-held view is that democracy is a attempt at equilibrium political solution, ie, an attempt to establish a self-balancing governing system that balances individual and societal rights.

utopian is defined as both 1) a perfect place and 2) an impractical, idealized dream, so i presume you are talking about the former definition when posing your query.

i don't believe utopia exists - it is not in human nature. we strive towards the ideal, but even if we reach it, then we create a new ideal to strive for. therefore my short answer to your question is that the constitution is a trade-off that is INTENDED to evolve and flex with the governed.

governance needs to be flexible - a trivial example is the family unit or a small tribe. does a democracy best balance the individual and group? or does a benevolent dictatorship work best (on average now, no cherrypicking examples).

so far, of the systems we've seen and given a critical mass of the number of individuals governed, it seems like democracy is the least worst system of governance if the goal is to balance individual and group utility. remember you have a bell curve of individual utility curves and incentives and needs and desires - yes the average person simply wants a wife and kids and 2.1 cars, but there are six-sigma members of the population that want only to kill prostitutes or fondle mouse toes as their primary utility objective.

socialism/communism - too easy to slip into olig-despotism; dictatorship - too easy to slip into corruptness and the individual believing he is the state.

democracy has the best chance, and a constitution that balances powers is critical to the success of the political system. a free, unbiased, equal-opportunity-of-exposure press is also critical, as well as several other factors.

i usually can abstract most concepts or processes or systems into a combination of two concepts - statistics and evolution. statistics being a way to describe the past and current properties of the "thing" in question (ie, dispersion and the mass and area of a thing) and evolution in the terms of a constant game that must find it's equilibrium states, and is so flexible that it can change the rules of the game as part of the evolution. the more flexible the system, the less likely it will be prone to violent jumps or corrections.

hehe, this post has gotten a bit out of hand in the length department, but one last thing I think about on this topic - the thing that concerns me most about democracy is not whether it is a good system or not, but how flexible it is. the balance of powers has flexibility designed, but the constitution must be capable of evolving along with the society.

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