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#TWET: Terry Moe on the Constitution

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Relic2.jpg Could allocating more power to the American President result in a more efficient government? Could it result in a smaller government? I admit, I would have had a pretty strong (negative) reaction to those two questions if you'd posed them to me a week ago. But, as usual, this week's EconTalk episode has me thinking...

This week Roberts chats with Stanford political scientist Terry Moe. Moe has rather an unusual proposal...Moe argues that contrary to the President, US Congresspeople respond primarily to narrow local interests, disabling them from focusing on and making effective national policy. He cites several examples of well-intentioned policies gone awry. He suggests re-allocating some legislative authority away from Congress and to the President in the form of a general Fast Track authority. The President, Moe argues faces an incentive structure national in scope, and is thus better suited to deal with national level policy issues. Russ pushes back, asking Moe how such a change can be made while not disrupting the very sort of incentives Moe is counting on for his proposal to be effective.

And what precisely would count as a national level policy issue of the sort Moe is concerned with? This, to me, was perhaps the most interesting point of tension between the views of the two. Moe says, "So, what counts as a problem and what counts as a solution is in part a matter of democratic perspective: What is it that people want? Right?" Is this the sort of definition politicians could work with? That you could accept?

Moe and Roberts also have a very interesting discussion on just how such a policy could be implemented...It's not easy! Have a listen and see for yourself...And share your thoughts with us or at the original EconTalk post. (Also look for an EconTalk Extra and Medium post on this episode coming soon.)

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
MikeDC writes:

Yesterday, I had a real conversation with my 9 year old in which he asked why their aren't any "good" dictators. He's a relatively bright kid and quickly absorbed the concept that when people are truly being dictators, they're not being good. And for good measure, if a good person happened to be thrust into the role of dictator, the best thing would be to stop being one, but that, itself, was also very dangerous.

So anyway, now I can say that my 9 year old has a better grasp on political science than Terry Moe.

DaveE writes:

Would the original Senator rules (pre 17th amendment) have helped congresspeople from focusing narrowly on local interests?

Capt. J Parker writes:

Moe is pretty close to being correct, what counts as a problem and what counts as a solution is in part a matter of democratic perspective: What is it that we are willing to let our leaders get away with? Right?

Pajser writes:

I think it is matter of trust; hierarchy is for efficiency, consensus is for safety. More trust you have in your state, more you want it hierarchically organized. As libertarians usually fear from state (or at least they say so) efficiency shouldn't be important.

Mark Bahner writes:

It's funny that people--educated people--actually think the federal government is currently following the Constitution.

ThaomasH writes:

One way to increase the power of the executive -- quite popular with a certain kind of "conservative" -- is term limits.

Thomas Sewell writes:

The purported original goal of the government structure is in large part about obstructing government action without a wide consensus of geographically disparate people with a wide variety of interests. Effectively a super-majority of political interest groups.

Actions which concentrate power in the President rather than obstruct it may be more efficient in accomplishing what the majority at a given time want (this is what parliamentary systems tend to), but that's not actually the purpose of the U.S. government, as originally conceived. It's quite a leap to believe the President would be incentivized to do what is best for the whole nation, as opposed to what is best for themselves, their party or at best the slight plurality which voted for them. This was a known issue when the Constitution was written. See Federalist 51

Remember that the next President is almost surely going to be Hillary or Donald. The current and other recent Presidents have been bad enough with the additional executive power they've been able to wrangle out of the system. Is one of those two really who you want to give a bunch more power to implement their preferences?

Before you remove a fence, might want to make sure you know the reason it's there. May be an angry bull on the other side.

Amy Willis writes:

@DaveE, Moe does sort of suggest that, re: 17th Amendment and original structure of US legislature... That's one of the questions in the forthcoming Extra, so I hope you'll head over and speak more to that later!

@Mark Bahner, Moe's point is that the Constitution is NOT working today...that it was created for a country unlike the country we have today, and that the Founders couldn't possibly have anticipated either the changing nature of the nation or the nature of the social problems we face today.

Amy Willis writes:

For those interested, here's the link to this week's EconTalk Extra (question re: earlier make-up of the Senate included):

Would love to hear your comments!

Mark Bahner writes:
@Mark Bahner, Moe's point is that the Constitution is NOT working today...that it was created for a country unlike the country we have today, and that the Founders couldn't possibly have anticipated either the changing nature of the nation or the nature of the social problems we face today.

One can't legitimately say the Constitution isn't working, if we're not following it. Only if we were following it, and there were still significant problems, could one say the Constitution wasn't working. And the Founders had a clear way to address that potential problem...amendments to the Constitution.

The basic problem is that virtually no one in the U.S. knows what the Constitution says, and even fewer care what the Constitution means when it says something.

Some examples:

1) Just last night, Anderson Cooper was talking about Donald Trump’s “plan” (or more accurately, “goal”, as a commenter noted) for dealing with ISIS. Cooper made the statement, “We’ve been at war for more than 10 years…” What does the Constitution say about that? Of course it says that Congress declares wars, and the President is the Commander in Chief. So even though Anderson Cooper seems like a reasonably bright and informed fellow, it apparently doesn’t even occur to him that the fact the Congress hasn’t declared war on anyone is relevant…even in terms of discussing what the next potential loose-cannon president might do. It simply doesn’t even occur to…maybe 99% of U.S. citizens?...that Presidents using the military as an instrument of personal power is a violation of the Constitution, and is therefore a bad thing.

How many people know, for example, that in the original Constitutional Convention, it was proposed that the President be allowed to wage wars *without* Congressional declarations of war…but this proposal didn’t even receive a “second”? My guess would be that, out of 300 million people in the U.S., probably less than 3,000 people know that (i.e., less than 1 in 100,000). (Truth-in-commenting notice: I didn’t even know that fact until I read the webpage below.)

Great "Tenth Amendment Center" piece

2) Terry Moe talks at length about a debacle of giving money to “model cities.” But nowhere that I heard in the interview did he or Russ Roberts talk about whether the Constitution even authorizes the federal government to give money to “model cities.” (I’m pretty sure James Madison would say, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

3) Terry Moe and Russ Roberts also talk about education, but I didn’t hear any discussion of whether federal spending on education is authorized by the Constitution. (It isn’t.)

So before we discuss whether the Constitution is working or not, I think it’s important to first recognize that the Constitution isn’t being followed. It’s not the fault of the Constitution that it isn’t being followed. It’s the fault of the people who take an oath to follow it. And even more, it’s the fault of "We the People" for not speaking out when they don’t follow their oaths.

RickC writes:

Bravo, Mark Bahner!

Doug Graves writes:

I could not believe Terry Moe's argument for more Executive Branch Power. Mine eyes glaze over when Political Scientists like Moe argue for more Presidential power in an age of when Executive Orders already outnumber Bills as a kind of fiat law to go along with our fiat currency. Congress has willingly ceded constitutional authority to the President in such things as War; to the Federal Reserve in such things as currency. Because of Citizen's United politicians have been relegated to full-time fundraising duty. America has been taken over in a corporate coup d'etat. Most working people know this and that is why Donald Trump actually has a chance to be elected President. Sadly, he may represent the last best hope for America.

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