22 April 2012


I'm not sure if Francis Fukuyama or Thomas Friedman coined the word, but "vetocracy" is the word Friedman uses in his latest New York Times column to describe what Fukuyama fears that the U.S. has become. Vetocracy might be described as the decadence of a constitutional system based on checks and balances. In Friedman's words, it's what happens when democracy devolves "from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all." It results from what Fukuyama calls "a crisis of authority" in which citizens forget “that government was also created to act and make decisions.”   Friedman contends that there's been less incentive for interparty compromise since the end of the Cold War, while the information age makes old-school behind-the-scenes compromises nearly impossible. He closes with the usual recommendations; unlikely surrenders of senatorial prerogatives and more delegation of power to technocrats. He warns scoffers: 'I know what you’re thinking: “That will never happen.” And do you know what I’m thinking? “Then we will never be a great country again, no matter who is elected.”'

There's always been a tendency toward vetocracy in American politics. The Articles of Confederation allowed any one state to veto amendments to it, a handicap that obliged the Framers to do an end-run by getting states to ratify an alternate Constitution. Nearly from the beginning, the concept of concurrent majorities encouraged the belief that geographic interests, for starters, should be able to check government when its action seemed to benefit one interest at another's expense. The great expounder of the concurrent-majority idea, John C. Calhoun, actually looked favorably upon the constitution of the Kingdom of Poland, with its infamous liberum veto, despite Poland's helplessness in the face of dismemberment. Pop culture made the filibuster that Friedman and Fukuyama deplore into a heroic gesture by giving Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith a noble reason for using it. Many Americans today might dispute Fukuyama's commensensical-seeming statement that "government was created to act and make decisions," while believing what Friedman describes as "the fantasy that America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way." Even liberals and progressives may accept the premise of Jefferson's apocryphal saying, "that government is best which governs least," disagreeing with conservatives only on what constitutes minimal government. Much of this derives from our particular revolutionary heritage. The U.S. differs from the major revolutions of subsequent history because our revolutionaries really didn't want to take over everything and rebuild society from the ground up. While it's common, for that very reason, for historians to question whether ours was a real revolution, it could be argued that America's is the truly permanent revolution to the extent that our system is designed to prevent that consolidation of power dreaded by the Founders. It's not unreasonable to assert that throughout our history, many Americans have never conceded any common purpose that could justify greater government power except defense of the homeland. The one thing Fukuyama and Friedman are probably right about is that Americans are more suspicious of each other, and hence of democratic government, than ever -- less willing to recognize common interests than to see interest groups conspiring against each other and the "political class" or "1%" conspiring against all. The most obvious reason for any political entity to exist -- because everyone must live -- is not conceded by everyone. Before we reform our political system to make government run more smoothly, perhaps we should return to fundamentals, starting with a national discussion of why we are or should remain a nation in the first place. Vetocratic notions ought to be incompatible with true national feeling, but that should be up to the American people to decide.


Anonymous said...

"...America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way."
I'd say America's economic success is owed to the government. Why? Because our economic success is due to WWII. Since we won the war and the manufacturing sectors of the rest of the industrial world had been bombed into nothing, we were the go-to guys for pretty much everything.

Once the manufacturing sector of Europe and Japan had been rebuilt and India, Arabia, et. al. became industrialized, our place out front began to shrink. Now we have to actually compete with the rest of the industrialized world and we had a government that spent more time alienating the world, rather than making friends.

Anonymous said...

"that government is best which governs least,"

And that statement holds truth if you have "faith" that the overwhelming majority of individuals are willing and able to govern themselves. Unfortunately this shows itself as a false assumption.

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhyme, our economy was pretty successful before WW2 -- before the Depression, that is -- and Friedman's point is that government deserves a lot of the credit for that as well. As for faith, the Republicans really expect you to have faith only in the entrepreneurs, since everyone else is presumed to want "something for nothing," which is why they don't trust government if it's democratic to any extent.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, before WW2 we, and the rest of the world, were in the Great Depression. Not so sure how successful one can say an economy is under those conditions.

You may say our economy was "pretty successful" before WW2, but comparitively speaking, so were the economies of the industrialized world.

My point is that we became the economic superpower after WW2 because we were the only country with a manufacturing sector left in tact. Most repugnicans seem to only be aware of our "golden age" from the 50s through the 70s without giving any thought to WHY we had a golden age. Not because we are destined to be a "great country", but because we take advantage and exploit other nation's tragedies.