Bryan Caplan  

The Chamber of No

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Once you agree that limited government provides valuable insurance against future bad policies, the next question is: "How can government be limited?"  As my last post mentioned, there's a standard list, with supermajority rules, division of powers, judicial review, and federalism at the top.  But this is only the beginning.  How about creating a special review board with the power to block (but not pass) legislation?  Think of it as the "Chamber of No."

If the Chamber of No were elected by the usual processes, its partisan composition would oscillate just like the rest of the government.  But what if the Chamber's members had long-terms appointments like the Federal Reserve Board - or lifetime appointments, like the Supreme Court?  Activists would naturally complain about the "dead hand of the past."  But if you desire insurance against future bad new policies, the dead hand of the past is your friend.

But who should receive these appointments in the first place?  Let's back up a bit.  Economists have a standard story about selecting central bankers.  Since there's a bias towards inflationary finance, even liberals have a good reason to favor conservative central bankers, often known as "inflation hawks."   As my old macro teacher Ken Rogoff explains in his famous article, "The Optimal Degree of Commitment to an Intermediate Monetary Target":
It can be entirely rational for society to structure its central bank in such a way that the monetary authorities have an objective function very different from the social welfare function. Whenever a distortion causes the time-consistent rate of inflation to be too high, then society can be made better off by having the central bank place "too large" a weight on inflation rate stabilization. The model presented here may help explain why many countries set up an independent central bank and choose its governors from conservative elements of the financial community.
If you buy Rogoff's logic for central bankers, who should staff the Chamber of No?  Anyone in search of political insurance should want someone with a strong general inclination to veto new legislation.  Who has that inclination?  Not liberals.  Not conservatives.  Not socialists.  Not populists.  The correct Rogoffian answer in this case is... libertarians.  Whatever your political views, the best people to protect you from future bad government policies is people ideologically committed to the idea that government policies tend to be bad. 

To be fair, this doesn't mean non-libertarians would want to appoint extreme libertarians to the Chamber of No.  Rogoff explains why normal people wouldn't want their conservative central bankers to be too conservative:
Although society does want the central bank to place a large weight on inflation rate stabilization relative to employment stabilization, society will not (in general) want the weight to be infinite. By having the central bank place an infinite weight on inflation stabilization, society could succeed in bringing inflation down to its socially optimal level. But the central bank would also end up responding very inappropriately to supply shocks, allowing them to pass entirely through to employment
The same logic holds for the Chamber of No: You want its members to be more libertarian than you, to bolster insurance against future bad policies.  But if they're too radical, they'll veto everything - and few non-libertarians want that.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Khodge writes:

Taking any bets on this?

The analogy of the central bank is weak because, for most people, it is a more conceptual idea. When talking about legislation, though, everybody is against deficits and changes to social security. One is conceptual, one personal; no need to guess which one wins.

David R. Henderson writes:

Taking any bets on this?
What’s the “this?” It’s hard to see how you would fashion a bet based on what Bryan wrote above. But go ahead and propose one and I will consider it.

BD writes:

All of these procedural barriers are fine if government starts small and you want to inhibit it from becoming too intrusive. But when it is already too intrusive, don't these ideas just lock in the bad status quo?

CMOT writes:

Congratulations Bryan, you've invented the House of Lords circa 1909.

Nick writes:

This is fairly similar to the Supreme Court if you remove the theoretical constraints (which aren't there in reality) imposed by originalists.

The government passes a law and the Supreme Court makes a decision about whether that law fits within the Court's conception of the proper role of government, taking into consideration the policy outcomes of the law. In this capacity, the Court can generally only strike down laws as Unconstitutional or regulations as unlawful.

Granted, the Court also has the capacity to make laws through different channels. But I would not be so quick to believe that your Chamber of No would not expand its jurisdiction beyond what you imagine. Often saying "No" can result in policy-making depending on the nature of the question.

For example, can the government pass a law getting rid of all elementary schools? The Chamber of No says "No". By negative inference, or perhaps simply in effect, the House of No has guaranteed elementary schools and thereby created policy. All of this is to say, the Chamber of No may not be so limited and could still create, rather than merely block, bad policy.

Kitty_T writes:

I'm with CMOT: this basically describes Lords (or the Canadian Senate, which Macdonald called the chamber of "sober second thought") in relatively recent history.

Matthew Moore writes:

Yes, this is the House of Lords, more or less.

It can block, delay or amend. It cannot propose. It is staffed (mostly) by lifetime appointment.

It isn't nearly as Libertarian as you might wish. It's inherently conservative, in the sense of opposing change.

Mark Bahner writes:
As my last post mentioned, there's a standard list, with supermajority rules, division of powers, judicial review, and federalism at the top. But this is only the beginning. How about creating a special review board with the power to block (but not pass) legislation? Think of it as the "Chamber of No."

Oy, vey! ;-) How about...I dunno...following the Constitution?

From 1792 to the start of WWI, federal spending during peacetime never exceeded 5% of GDP. Up to 1941, federal spending in peacetime never exceeded 10% of GDP.

But since the mid-1950s, federal spending has actually averaged about 20% of GDP.

Federal spending and public debt

How could that be? Because people actually cared about following the Constitution prior to WWI.

AntiSchiff writes:

I favor something I call super-judicial review. Grant the courts the authority to abolish laws and regulations that empirically fail to result in the desired effect. Future laws and regulations would then perhaps be written with statements of the intended purpose of the laws.

Then, obviously, any party can challenge laws and regulations in court that do not achieve intended goals.

khodge writes:

David R Henderson
Mostly tongue-in-cheek but, following my comments, I would find it unlikely that beyond a handful of libertarians there would be support for such a chamber. Even good Tea Party representatives have their weakness for certain spending.

Maybe it would be possible to formulate a bet on if the Republicans could form a Chamber of No caucus (in both chambers) within the party...bonus if it could review/sunset regulations, sub=departments, or whole departments.

(No bets from me...I make a fool of myself every time I comment on Bryan's bets.)

James writes:

It would not take long for the chamber of no to start making laws.

A coalition within the Chamber of No could threaten to repeal legislation if the normal lawmaking body does not make some law favored by that coalition. It may be illegal for the coalition to propose a new law to the regular congress but it won't matter, because laws intended to regulate legislators do not have penalties attached.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Anyone in search of political insurance should want someone with a strong general inclination to veto new legislation. Who has that inclination? Not liberals. Not conservatives. Not socialists. Not populists. The correct Rogoffian answer in this case is... libertarians. "

I think you are forgetting that both laws expanding the size of government and laws reducing the size of government are "new legislation".

By what I know about US politics, I think the people with more inclination to veto new legislation are probably the moderate Republicans/old Eastern Establishment types - they don't have the Democratic impulse to "save the world/the children/etc." neither the radical Republican impulse to reverse the measures taken by previous generations of Democrats; they simply want to manage the things as they are, without rocking much the boat.

David Condon writes:

Like Nick, my immediate thought was that this is essentially what the Supreme Court already does. I was expecting you to link this to textualism, which seems like the strongest no position in the judiciary today. If I was to spend a lot of time analyzing my own legal philosophy, I doubt I'd decide on pure textualism, but I would certainly expect it to highly influence my views since I am strongly in favor of lots of No's. So textualists might be too radical for some, but not for me.

Bryan's "Chamber of No" may seem empowered to block new legislation. But to go further give explicit power to repeal any prior legislation. In Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the government of the moon employs such a house. Any repeal can carry with 1/3 vote, assuming I recall correctly.

I proposed other mechanisms in "A State Can Be Designed To Shrink".

As a libertarian, the revolution which I may hope to see would be a population of voters who know:

  • acts of state are almost always bad;
  • but the media of a democracy respond as we expect to incentives;
  • so rational ignorance gives democracy its appearance of beneficial order.
Such a revolution holds the only hope for democracy as I see it. Because such a revolution may not occur soon, in 1993 I undertook the Free Nation Foundation. FNF created a forum within which libertarian scholars could face only other libertarian scholars — and not the rationally-ignorant statist masses — in our search for a constitution. We made progress but much still needs to be done. Thank you Bryan.

Tom West writes:

In the end the people get what the people want.

You can delay it a little bit, put a few roadblocks in the way, but a Chamber of No would inevitably fail if it was too effective, vetoing legislature desired by the populace.

> Because people actually cared about following the Constitution prior to WWI.

Exactly my point. At some point, the Constitution was in danger of preventing the expression of the people's desire for their state. If it wasn't neutered, it would have been destroyed (albeit much later, destruction (usually meaning irrelevancy) doesn't happen quickly).

Same thing for religion. A religion that fails to bend to their believers wants and needs will be neutered or become irrelevant.

Now, the influence does go from institution to people, as well. But in a conflict between the people and the institutions, bet on the people in the long term.

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