Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Power structure and concentration

My Ideal Constitution, Part II: Power structure and concentration

Another issue regarding power is deciding to whom or what the power should be given. Throughout my writings I’ve referred to “the government” in a very abstract, undefined way. But today we get to define that word a little more precisely. What person or groups of people get to call the shots, and which shots do they get to call?

Of course, there are dozens of ways to title the people who have the power. A political decision making body of one person can be called a king, queen, emperor, czar, president, chief, boss, head-honcho, grand poo-bah, etc. A decision making body of a small group is usually called a council or a board, while a larger group is called a parliament, senate, house, congress, or assembly. But much more important than the names we give to these bodies is the number of bodies we choose to have, and how we divide the powers between them.

The competing factors in play here are the speed and efficiency with which decisions can be made vs. the safety, quality, and legitimacy of those decisions. The fastest and least “messy” way to govern is to concentrate the power into one decision-making body. The fewer the number of people in that body, the faster decisions can be reached: for example, in a monarchy, only one person needs to make up his or her mind about what to do. When speed and flexibility is of the essence, government can’t afford to have too many cooks in the kitchen. An individual or small group can respond and adapt to conditions on the ground much more fluidly than can a large group or several groups. Concentrated power also has the added benefit of increased continuity in the law. There are usually a wide range of opinions on how a problem should be addressed, but sometimes in order for any solution to be effective, it has to be handled all one way or all another. When power is split between two disagreeing factions, the result is often that neither opinion gets fully executed, and the compromise winds up being a half-assed middle ground that neither side really likes. As General Patton once said, "A good plan implemented with vigor now is better than a perfect plan executed next week." Concentrated power enables the government to make a firm decision and go with it.

The opposite of concentrated power is separated power, which also has several advantages. For one thing, separated power does not put all the eggs in one basket. Just because decisions can be reached speedily does not mean they are good decisions; slowing things up by forcing deliberation and compromise prevents rash and impulsive decisions. Usually, however, decisions are not objectively good or bad, but rather highly opinionated. This brings us to the primary advantage of separated power: enhanced representation and protection of minority rights. By giving power to a larger number of people, you increase the diversity of viewpoints represented. This not only protects minority rights, but advances the national discussion and forces lawmakers to confront, persuade, and bargain with their opposition, instead of simply ignoring them. This also enables compromise, which often maximizes the number of people for which the solution is at least acceptable. While it is true that separated power makes it more difficult for government to get things done, that can be a good thing, because we don’t know if what it’s getting done is good or bad! If it the action under consideration is truly a good idea with strong and reasoned support, it should win out in the long run. But a government that can do much good quickly can also do much bad quickly, so it is important that we check its ability to do the latter. Divvying up the power between several groups is a great way to do that.

So which is better? It depends on the task, but generally, libertarians like me prefer separated power. This is primarily because overly powerful people scare the bajeezus out of us. Separated power is more conducive to gridlock, and gridlock is more conducive to nothing getting done; generally speaking, I’m just fine with that! Because I’m so suspicious of the temptation to over-govern, I appreciate the novelty of pitting those ambitions against one another to mitigate that danger. Because I’m so cynical about the government’s intentions and overall effectiveness, I want the politicians to take their time and make absolutely certain that whatever they’re planning to do is a good idea. If that means the people who disagree can hold things up, so be it. If any substantial number of politicians disagree that force should be wielded in the manner prescribed, then chances are there is a substantial portion of the populace that feels the same way. Even if that group is a minority, their objection would decrease the legitimacy of the force being wielded. Maximizing consent on what is done requires the agent to err on the side of inaction.

However, I am willing to admit that there are certain powers which ought to be concentrated for rapid response, differing opinions be damned. The power to wage (but not to declare!) war is a perfect example, because lives are on the line and time is of the essence in saving those lives. General George S. Patton once wisely observed that in battle, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” If large groups of argumentative people were put in charge of formulating military battle tactics as the enemy approached, it would be a disaster. A stern chain of command with individual decision makers is preferable in these situations; it just makes it all the more important that those decision makers be qualified for the job.

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