Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Juan cole blog item on state power

Juan Cole has a good blog entry pulling together various historical and current writings on the way the US governmental system has been set up to avoid the tyrrany of the majority. He focusses on the way the US senate is set up to give the states the power to stop things in their tracks. The idea, apparantly, is that the senate is a collection of disparate interests and as such is resistant to control by the ruling party and the president. Juan Cole voices worry that the current highly organized way of doing things in politics may be threatening the role of the Senate. He suggests that without the ability to act as a counterbalance the US becomes more of a parliamentary system with the president holding much more power.

In general, this is my concern in Canadian politics as well. Be it Conservatives or Liberals in power, the Canadian political system is set up to give the party in power a sense of comfortable omnipotence. This is bad. We need to move towards a system where the party in power finds ruling to be a challenging and frustrating experience. The party in power needs to be forced to make deals and compromises and thus become more representative of a broader range of public opinions and ideals. Smaller parties, including "regional" ones, need to be able to have a say in governing. What we now have is stagnation, corruption, public frustration, whining, and generally poor government. Steven Harper does not strike me as a man with new visions. He's power hungry to the point of needing a napkin to sop up his drool. He's shrill. He's evasive. What we need is a person of vision who, once elected, works to reduce the absolute power of the governing party. I don't think a Senate representing the provinces is a good idea, since we already have enough whining between the provinces and federal government. What we need is a system where debate and consensus is the only way to get things done.

Here's a bit from James Madison's Federalist papers
By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

Madison seems to argue for checks and balances aimed to prevent the majority from acting in tyrrany. As someone with a healthy belief in total depravity over humanism I concur. I don't concur with all he wrote, though. Some of it seems kind of flaky, though 200 years can do that.