Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Case for Voting 3rd Party (condensed Hopkins Newsletter Edition)

This past Wednesday evening, Americans were ceremoniously presented with the preferred platitudes of this election season. In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama predictably talked past one another, evaded the monitor’s questions and stuck to tired campaign catchphrases in search of the ever-elusive “zinger”. The debate capped off a long summer of productive discussion on the issues that matter most to America’s future – issues like Mitt Romney’s tax returns, the pleasure of firing people, why airplane windows don’t open, whether you really “built that,” and the morality of various canine transportation methods.

Joking aside, American politics have become exactly that: a joke. Each election season brings a fresh batch of meaningless, infantile banter to rile up a target audience, while substantive policy issues are eschewed. Each party blames the other for all the nation’s woes, and yet no matter which party wins things only ever seem to get worse. Time and time again, bold promises become bald-faced lies, and the people lose faith in their leaders’ competence and motives. Americans have a growing sense that something is seriously wrong with their democracy, and a prevailing lack of confidence in both parties leaves many voters utterly uninspired by either major candidate.

Next month, these voters must make a decision: do they vote for whomever they honestly like the most, or for whichever major candidate they dislike the least? In some elections, choosing only among those with a chance to win makes sense. But in 2012, Americans who want real change should instead vote for their favorite third-party candidate, for two main reasons.

First, the effective difference between the candidates with a chance to win is negligible. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have remarkably similar policy positions, such that it doesn’t really matter which man becomes president. Economically, both supported the bank bailouts and called for stimulus spending during the recession. Both favor tariffs and labor protectionism. Both propose a long-term fiscal plan that comes nowhere near balancing the budget, but tout miniscule spending cuts anyway so as to appear frugal. Both offer government handouts to preferred industries in the form of subsidies, federal contracts, targeted tax breaks, regulatory exemptions or direct loans. On foreign policy, both candidates will continue military interventions abroad. Both will keep the troops in Afghanistan, continue foreign aid, continue the Cuban oil embargo, push for aggressive sanctions on Iran, and threaten military action against it. Both have flip-flopped repeatedly on social issues, their support of an individual mandate, and states’ rights. On civil liberties, both support the NDAA, the Patriot Act, and the TSA. Both will keep marijuana illegal and escalate federal enforcement of the drug war.

On these issues and many others, Americans don’t get a real choice, because no matter whom they choose the policy outcome will be the same. Of course, there are some issues on which the candidates disagree, but exaggerating these differences with polarized rhetoric only masks the larger consensus between the two. On the vast majority of issues, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to keep things exactly as they are. They are Coke and Pepsi: team red and team blue, advocating the same core product with a different marketing strategy. Contrary to they’d have us believe, the problem with American democracy is not that one side is right while the other is wrong. More frequently, it’s that they’re both wrong. Americans across the political spectrum have detected a lack of responsiveness by either party to their concerns. There exists a significant discord between what the voters want and what their government gives them, limiting public discourse and restricting electoral choice.

This brings us to the second reason Americans should vote third-party: it sends an important message that the status quo will not be tolerated any longer. Although no third party candidate will win the 2012 election, significant progress can be made even short of that benchmark. High third-party vote totals erode the myth that nobody else can win, which in turn affects the behavior of both voters and politicians. For politicians, the threat of losing support provides incentive to adopt the most popular tenets of third-party campaigns into their own platforms. For voters, this change in perspective could eventually spark a realigning election, enabling the rise of a credible third party to provide voters with more adaptive and diverse options. Either way it breaks down entrenched party gridlock, provides fresh perspectives on old problems, and injects some much needed creativity into our stalemated political world. Competition realigns the interests of politicians with those of their constituents, keeping government in sync with the evolving demands of its people.

Any who value the ability to make meaningful democratic choices tomorrow must reject the false choices presented to us today. If you’re a Hopkins undergraduate reading this article, chances are this is the first election for which you’ll be old enough to vote. In your excitement, remember that it will not be your last. If Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a candidate, then by all means vote for them. But if not, I urge you to look at the bigger picture this November. Ask yourself if you’re really satisfied with the amount of choice you have in how you are governed. Set aside any lukewarm tolerance for the side that annoys you the least, and objectively ask yourself whether either of these two candidates truly deserve your vote. If the answer is no, don’t give it to them. Halfheartedly picking the lesser of two evils will do little to truly alter our nation’s course. Instead, vote for real change, and send a message that you expect a real choice in the future. Vote for a third party candidate.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Don't Waste Your Vote (on Romney or Obama): The Case for Voting 3rd Party

On Wednesday evening, Americans citizens were ceremoniously presented the preferred platitudes of this election season. In the first presidential debate, major party candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama predictably talked past one another, evaded the monitor’s questions and stuck to tired campaign catchphrases in search of the ever-elusive “zinger.” The debate capped off a long summer of honest, productive discussion on the issues that matter most to America’s future – issues like Mitt Romney’s tax returns, London’s Olympic preparedness, the pleasure of firing people, why airplane windows don’t open, the morality of various canine transportation methods, and whether or not you really “built that.”

Joking aside, American politics have become exactly that: a joke. Informed and intelligent people should be insulted by the complete absence of relevant, substantive discourse in modern political campaigns. How can it be that with so many urgent, pressing decisions facing our nation, none of them are being seriously discussed by those competing for our votes? All throughout the country there is a growing sense that something is seriously wrong with our democracy. This problem runs deeper than a sour economy, or the debt crisis, or unpopular wars abroad; although these are daunting challenges, America has survived worse. What sets our current problems apart is the pervasive lack of public confidence that our elected officials will be able to solve them. And if the past decade is any indication, why should people believe differently?

Each election seasons brings a fresh batch of meaningless, infantile banter about irrelevant distractor issues. Each campaign speech seems designed only to rile up a target audience instead of addressing the nation’s actual problems. Each party blames the other for all the nation’s woes, and yet no matter which party wins things only ever seem to get worse. Time and time again, bold promises become bald-faced lies, and Americans lose faith in their leaders’ competence and motives. With so much misplaced trust in prior politicians, it’s no wonder that so many Americans are so utterly uninspired by either candidate this year.

What they’ve been told over and over again is that they should choose one of them anyway. The importance of that “choice” is constantly stressed by the media and by politicians from both major parties. “The outcome of this election”, they tell us, “is too important to waste your vote on anyone else.” To magnify the importance of that outcome, the parties exaggerate relatively small policy differences with highly polarizing rhetoric. They do this because their legitimacy depends on our belief that we have a meaningful choice in how we’re governed. To fuel that belief, the parties must preserve the perception that they are perpetually at odds with one another. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to convince you that they are two very different men, who will actually take America in two very different directions. They want to convince you that it really matters who wins.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The two-party system has proven itself incapable of presenting Americans with distinct, adaptive, varied choices that respond to their evolving demands in a timely manner. Instead, it creates duopoly on the services government offers, which is used to prevent any alternate choice from serious consideration. As in most elections, the 2012 presidential candidates support a very similar set of policies, but shroud those policies in different rhetoric so as to make them sound appealing to different people.

Don’t believe it? Try answering the following questions. Which candidate advocates foreign military interventions to spread democracy abroad? Which candidate wants to keep the troops in Afghanistan? Which wants to continue foreign aid? Which advocates aggressive sanctions on Iran and hinted they might initiate military actions against it? Which wants to continue the oil embargo on Cuba? Which has flip-flopped repeatedly on social issues, and on gay rights specifically due to a supposed change in heart? Which has similarly flip-flopped on whether they support an individual mandate in healthcare? Which supports the NDAA, the Patriot Act, and the TSA? Which wants to keep marijuana illegal at the federal level and escalate federal enforcement of the drug war? Which supported the bank bailouts, and called for stimulus spending to jumpstart the economy? Which has proposed a long-term fiscal plan that comes nowhere near balancing the budget at any point in time? Which advocates miniscule spending cuts to portray themselves as frugal anyway, while stating that they will not cut Medicare or Medicaid? Which favors continued farm, ethanol and corn subsidies? Which supports crony-capitalism arrangements in which the government assists certain industries or companies through targeted tax breaks, regulatory exemptions or direct loans? Which supports tariffs and labor protectionism?

By now you’ve probably guessed that the answer to all of these questions is both of them. On these issues and many others, Americans don’t get a real choice, because no matter who they choose the policy outcome will be the same. This overlap is almost never brought up in modern political discourse, and stands no chance to change if people keep enabling the two-party system, actively or tacitly. There are of course some issues on which the candidates disagree. But the number, size and importance of that disagreement pales in comparison to the enormous area of consensus between the two. The vast majority of policies would be indistinguishable under either administration, because on the vast majority of issues, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to keep things exactly as they are. To get the country back on track we need a bold change of direction, but neither party is willing to provide it.

This problem is not unique to 2012. In almost every election, team red and team blue advocate the same core package in a slightly different format. They mask the areas on which they concur to hide the fact that the people have no real choice on those areas. They present a false choice between two inconsequentially different people every four years, hoping to win but caring much more about preserving the myth that only one of these two parties can win. If they can convince you that your vote is important, and then convince you that voting for anyone with any substantially new ideas is throwing away that vote, the myth lives on and their long-term stranglehold on power is solidified. It's a myth we need to break down if any true progress is to be made.

The historically flawed notion that third party candidates cannot win has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the pervasiveness of this belief is the only thing that makes it true. Certainly, the status quo is not preserved because it is popular with the voters. On many of the above issues, American opinions are in stark contrast to those advocated by their representatives. Almost 80% of Americans want to reduce foreign aid or end it entirely. Increasing majorities want to legalize marijuana and end the war on drugs. But these ideas are simply off the table until the major parties are given an incentive to put it on the table. Congress’ approval rating slipped into single digits in August, and has been below 20% for years. And yet in 2010, the House of Representatives had an 87% retention rate - the lowest that rate had been in 40 years! The Senate had an 84% retention rate, and it would be highly surprising to see these rates dip much lower in 2012. How can it be that 90% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and yet over 80% of Congress is perpetually reelected? Gerrymandering is one reason – the tragic but deeply embedded mindset that voting for anyone other than a Democrat or a Republican is “wasting your vote” is another.

If everyone who has this mindset discarded it simultaneously, the nation would be ripe for a realigning election. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that self-titled independents make up 38% of the electorate, outnumbering both Democrats (32%) and Republicans (24%). All across the political spectrum, there is broad consensus that America needs a drastic change of direction. And all across that spectrum, it is widely, silently agreed is that neither of these two candidates will actually provide that change. Americans are beginning to recognize that contrary to mainstream rhetoric, the problem isn’t that one side is right while the other side is wrong. It’s more accurate to say they’re both wrong. It has become abundantly clear that whatever ails our nation cannot be fixed by either of these two parties as they currently operate. Although we claim to live in a democracy in which the people decide how they’re governed, there is a significant discord between what the voters want and what their government gives them. This is the deep-rooted problem that citizens have detected with American democracy.

How can we solve it? People who recognize this problem can react in three different ways. The first is to vote for whichever major candidate they feel is the least bad, and hope change will eventually come. Although this is tempting in the short term, over the long term it only endorses, incentivizes and encourages the behavior of whoever you voted for. The second typical response to this realization is apathy. If we can’t change the outcome, why should we care? Why go through the hassle of voting and participating in the political process if the decisions we make don’t matter? Many Americans are so discouraged and frustrated by the lack of progress that they’ve become indifferent to political affairs entirely. Although this withdrawal is tempting, it is also the worst possible reaction if we are to make a difference, because if you don’t vote, politicians ignore your opinion entirely. Those who care govern those who don’t. If you send the signal that you don’t care, then politicians won’t care about what you think, and they won’t court your support when shaping future party platforms. Too many people have been so apathetic about their lack of choice in politics for so long that they are simply ignored by the major parties.

Voters, however, cannot be ignored by any politician looking to stay in office (read: all of them). Large numbers of third-party voters would force both Democrats and Republicans to adjust their strategies accordingly. In the best case scenario, this would enable the rise of a third party (or several) in future elections. These new options would enhance choice and increase the diversity of viewpoints represented in our government. But even in the worst case scenario, voting third party this would provide incentive for the two major parties to adopt some of the most popular tenets of those third party campaigns into their own plans, enacting real change and breaking up entrenched traditional viewpoints in the process. Either way it would inject some much needed creativity into our stalemated political world by providing fresh perspectives on old problems. And even if that shake up has minimal effect, you get the satisfaction of actively participating in our democratic process without having to hold your nose in disgust at the person you vote for.

No third party candidate will win the 2012 election, but significant progress can be made even short of that benchmark. For instance, what if the portion of Americans who voted third party exceeded the margin of victory between the other two? Mathematically, this would mean third-party input potentially changed the outcome of the election. It would send a powerful message to the losing party: if they want to win, they need our support, and if they want our support, they need to actually address our concerns. By contrast, voting for Romney or Obama even though you don’t really like them sends politicians the message that they can do whatever they please without jeopardizing your support, so long as they abuse you less than the other guy.

If for no other reason, a vote for a third party candidate is valuable in that it helps break down the myth that nobody else can win. It rejects the false choice presented to us by the two-party stranglehold that gives us two very similar status-quo candidates each year. It sends a message to those parties that if they want to keep our business, they have to actually be responsive to our concerns. Just as the prospect of customers leaving for elsewhere incenses private businesses to make better products at a cheaper price, taking our political business elsewhere realigns politicians with the incentive that should be guiding them: keeping their constituents happy.

If you’re a Hopkins undergraduate reading this article, chances are that this election will be the first in which you’re old enough to vote. In making your decision, remember that it will not be your last. If either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a candidate, then by all means vote for them. If not, then I urge you to look at the bigger picture this November. Ask yourself if you’re really satisfied with the amount of choice you have in how you’ll be governed these next four years. Set aside any lukewarm preference for the side you dislike least, and objectively ask yourself whether either of these two candidates truly deserve your vote. If the answer is no, don’t give it to them. Instead, vote for real change by sending a message that you expect a real choice in the future.

Halfheartedly picking the lesser of two evils will do little to truly change our nation’s course. Americans deserve a better choice than that, and there are better options out there. Although it’s too late to realistically elect those options this year, if we want them to improve in the future we must communicate that desire now. If we value the ability to make meaningful democratic choices tomorrow, we must reject the false choices presented to us today. If we want real change, we must make our leaders confront new ideas instead of dodging them. If we want our voices to be heard on important issues, we must start voting for whoever truly engages with those issues. If we want our politicians to be responsive to our concerns, we must make them compete for our business by demonstrating a willingness to take our business elsewhere. In other words, we must start voting for third party candidates.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The True Context of "You Didn't Build That"

When President Obama made his infamous “you didn’t build that” speech, the Romney campaign was quick to incorporate it into their campaign, to considerable success. Indeed, “We Did Build That” became a central tenet of the Republican National Convention. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Democrats to get their panties in a bunch over this message. The Obama campaign released an official statement, followed by an official TV ad, accusing Romney of taking the quote out of context. Many major new sites ran editorials blasting Romney for the same thing. Were their complaints justified? Here’s the full speech:

The words themselves seem grammatically ambiguous. It's certainly plausible the word “that” could refer to the “roads and bridges” in the prior sentence, rather than to the businesses themselves. Perhaps the speech’s core message would be better reflected by the statement “you didn’t build that alone.” But the truth is that ideologically, it hardly matters. Sniping at sentence structure is not the root of Republican outrage at this speech. No, Obama did not say that people don’t deserve any credit for what they earn, and most Republicans are not saying he did. What the president was saying and continues to say that they don’t deserve full credit, and the implication he draws from this is that therefore, what they earn does not fully belong to them. He’s using collectivist rhetoric to argue that really it belongs to all of us. That’s something that many Americans rightfully find outrageous, and totally something you can build a campaign off of.

The president’s speech was modeled off of the more eloquent – but equally flawed – reasoning of Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who famously argued that “nobody gets rich on their own.” Citing publicly funded schools, police/fire departments, and roadways, she observed that public services play an integral role in allowing the private sector to thrive. This is partly true (although Republicans are quick to point out that it's taxable business profits which enable government spending, not vice-versa). But the view that this involuntary assistance in some way reduces the right to keep one’s earnings is a very different contention indeed. Mandatory schooling and an enforced monopoly on roadways do not carry with them any moral obligation to sacrifice our possessions to the government – much less the arbitrary and enormous portions of our possessions that Democrats demand. Doing business with the voluntary cooperation of other people does not imply collective credit for your success, and it does not justify the forced redistribution of that business’s profits. The entire idea that the means by which you legally acquire something is relevant or in any way diminishes your claim to ownership of it is just a preposterous argument, and it’s exactly what Obama was and is suggesting.

He was and is suggesting that since people interact and cooperate with one another, everybody deserves some slice of everyone else’s pie. He was and is arguing that since individuals succeed within the elaborate maze government has built around them, their success is not wholly their own. He was and is using this flawed logic to outline a preemptive justification for even more redistributive taxation. He was and is attacking the notion of individual property rights by deliberately blurring the lines of ownership. For that, he was and is wrong.

But even if you think he’s right, at the very least please stop whining about context. It’s dodging the issue. If you truly want to take things in context, the two sentences at the center of this controversy are insignificant in the larger context of the speech itself. In that speech, Obama conveyed exactly the emotion he meant to convey. The rest of the video only reiterates the same “we’re all in this together” theme: greedy businessmen who want to keep what they earn are attacked as selfish and vain, to great applause and great fanfare. The root idea being attacked is the exact idea he peddled in that speech to rile up the crowd.

And even if you naively insist that entire speech was somehow one big unintentional gaffe, please, PLEASE stop pretending Obama (or any other politician on the face of the earth) is somehow above taking advantage of those gaffes. Obama forfeited the ability to bitch about context when he decided to use Romney’s “I kind of like firing people” comment out of his context. And at least this issue has an underlying ideological dispute; don’t even get me started about the whole dog-on-the-roof thing. I don’t know of any other politician who so sanctimoniously preens about being “above party politics” while personally engaging in as much of the dirty work as Obama does himself. If that stuff passes for campaigning in modern politics, fighting the collectivization of property rights is more than fair game.

In Defense of Non-Interventionism: A Third Option in the Middle East

I recently wrote a response to a friends article in the JHU Politik, a student run political publication here at Hopkins. You can read the full magazine here. My essay, which advocates a non-interventionist foreign policy, is re-posted below:

Henry Chen’s recent article “In Defense of the Arab Spring” effectively discredits the pursuit of regional stability through the suppression and containment of foreign democratic uprisings. However, it fails to address another important alternative to current U.S. policies abroad; as such, it poses a false choice between two different types of intervention, without adequately justifying any intervention in the first place. The best way for the United States to both serve its short-term interests and enhance its long-term security is to end its material entanglements in the Middle East altogether.

American history is rife with ineffective and counterproductive meddling abroad. Chen’s article admits the failure of one such case: the 1953 CIA-initiated coup in Iran. The article presents the disastrous long-term consequences of these actions as evidence that imposing Western ideology on faraway peoples is shortsighted and misguided. It correctly argues that America should use more foresight when considering such measures in the future, but then fails to apply that same standard to recent U.S. involvement in the Arab Spring.

Many people distinguish between these cases by citing a different motivation. Intervening to spread democracy, they argue, is different than intervening to spread capitalism or pro-Western sentiment. But just like any other ideal, democracy does not exist in absolute terms. It exists only in degrees, and the presence of some degree of democracy does not guarantee moral behavior now or in the future. Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin, and the Muslim Brotherhood were each democratically elected; they also each have characteristics that the United States might not want to be associated with. It is highly uncertain whether the governments the United States is installing, funding and protecting will turn out to be any less oppressive than the regimes they replaced. In a region as turbulent and unpredictable as the Middle East, the U.S. cannot afford to bet its image on the outcome of such risky experiments.

The true lesson from Iran is not that the foreign government propped up by the United States was insufficiently democratic. Nor is that the lesson from our support of Saddam Hussein, or the Mujaheddin  or Mubarak. The true lesson is that in a complex region with complex interests at stake, it’s often difficult even for well-meaning policymakers to objectively discern who the “good guys” are. It’s even tougher to determine whether or not they will remain good. The United States has an atrocious track record when it comes to making that determination, and when it chooses incorrectly it has real consequences for our nation’s safety and message. Ideologically, it damages America’s image, decreases its influence abroad and diminishes the appeal of democracy to subsequent generations. Morally, it renders the United States partially responsible for foreign atrocities. And practically, it wastes money and weakens our security by inflaming anti-American sentiment across the globe. The recent protests occurred in part because the Middle East does not want to be America’s playground for experimental regime change any longer. If the newly installed governments turn out to be less than ideal, it will only engender even more hatred and extremist violence against the United States.

America’s dark history of botched intervention in Middle Eastern affairs demands that it use its money and military more selectively. Its current debt crisis necessitates that restraint. Democracy can be a tremendous force for good in the world, but that does not mean externally orchestrated regime change, nation building and monetary aid are effective ways to spread it. Rather, the best way to attract foreign nations to democracy is to make our own democracy as appealing as possible. When we instead appoint ourselves as uninvited arbiters in their regional disputes, we rather closely resemble the dictators we depose.

Final Report Card on the US Constitution

If the US constitution were a school project graded against a libertarian rubric, and I had to give the framers (and whoever wrote the amendments) a report card based on the ideal criteria I laid out this summer, it would read as follows:

  • Specificity of Purpose: C+
    • Comments: They did outline a purpose, and their other writings did specify what they intended that purpose to be. The purpose they intended was as close to ideal as any government has ever come. However, the actual wording they used to outline that purpose was far too broad to be an effective check on the ends government may pursue.
  • Enumeration of Powers: A
    • Comments: They were the first in the world to clearly and specifically enumerate the things government could do, and ban it from doing anything else. They added an additional layer of protection by further limiting even these enumerated powers with a Bill of Rights. This only falls short of an A+ because some of the specific powers they chose to grant government are too expansive and/or unnecessary.
  • Separation of Powers: A
    • Comments: This was Madison’s crowning accomplishment. His three-branched division of power was unique, original, and utterly brilliant. By pitting competing interests against one another, he “enabled the government to control the people, and in the next place obliged it to control itself.” This is the glue that has kept the US government through 44 peaceful exchanges of power (45, - Lincoln), and what has made the US constitution the model for the entire world. The deterioration of some of these checks today is the fault of the people for allowing politicians to bend the rules, rather than a result of some defect in the document itself.
  • Federalism: B+
    • Comments: Great job distinguishing between state and federal powers, and using the former to check the latter. However, there are insufficient limits on state powers themselves.
  • Republicanism: A
    • Comments: Once again, groundbreaking and innovative problem solving. The public will is taken into account, but the input is indirect enough to prevent a tyranny of the majority and allow the most qualified to ultimately make the decisions.

Overall grade: A-

These grades would be even higher if the class was curved according to the other countries of the day; by the standards of the times, the framers blew everyone out of the water. It was truly revolutionary. Today, many countries around the world have caught up a bit, but none have limited the government’s powers (in theory or practice) so specifically as has the US constitution. For that reason, I still give it the best in class.

Of course, the American constitution is not a perfect document. It never has been, as is attested by its 27 amendments, initial codification of slavery, and long-time restriction of voting rights. To this day, many parts of the constitution are inconsistent with the ideal construct I described. I already complained about the lack of specificity in purpose, and there are powers enumerated in the constitution that I don’t really think the government should have*. I also think there are fairer ways to measure for the public input than the winner-takes-all electoral system, and more efficient ways to operate lawmaking bodies. I would favor many amendments to refine these purposes, restrict these powers, and reform those legislative procedures (some of which I will propose in future blogs).

But in the bigger picture, these flaws are trivial matters. Although the US constitution is not perfect, I do consider it the closest humanity has ever come. As Ronald Reagan once said “this idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power, is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man.” This was the first governing document (and arguably, still the only document) to fully outline the three unalienable human rights of life, liberty, and property. It remains the most ingenious mechanism of securing those rights to ever be invented. And with some minor tweaks in wording and some major shifts in judicial interpretation, I genuinely believe that it is still humanity’s greatest hope for the protection of those rights. I firmly believe that the US constitution has the best chance of all governing structures yet invented to maximize the freedom, prosperity, and happiness of all people everywhere.

It is for this reason (and this reason alone) that I consider myself a patriot. When I took the Oath of Enlistment in the US Army, I solemnly swore that I would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and that I would “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” I did not swear allegiance to any individual man or leader. That is by design. In Ancient Rome, soldiers swore allegiance to their lord or ruler; they swore to follow one man wherever he went and fight his battles, regardless of cause, for the glory of his name and the enrichment of his kingdom. But after the colonial militia narrowly defeated soldiers who served a tyrannical king, it was decided that American soldiers would never make any such pledge to any one individual. Similarly, my allegiance is not to the territory enclosed my America’s borders. That land, though beautiful, is no more worth fighting for than the land anywhere else. And although I serve the American people, my allegiance is not to them either; indeed, American citizens are no superior in value or worth than the people anywhere else. Rather, my allegiance is to an ideal, the ideal inscribed in the document I’ve sworn to uphold. That ideal is individual liberty, and even today it is more alive and well in America than it is anywhere else. By a longshot, not even close. The people here cherish, adore, utilize and stand up for that freedom to a greater extent than they do in any other country. The moment that changes, the day that spirit dies or leaves for somewhere else, is the day I move.

“Where liberty dwells, there is my country.” B. Franklin

My primary objective is to ensure that never happens. I want to devote my life’s work towards ensuring that spirit never dies; that freedom’s last, best chance on earth shall not perish from the earth. Beyond the Army, I partake in American politics because I want to bring the government’s actual activities as closely in-line with those the constitution prescribes as possible. Next, I want to tinker with that constitution until it is as close to perfect as possible. And when I’m done with that, I want the freedom displayed in the United States to beckon as much of the rest of the world as possible too. I have devoted my life to the protection, perpetuation, and improvement of that document, in order to “secure the blessings of liberty for myself and my posterity”.

It’s a big task. This blog is how I get started.

Madison's Separation of Powers

“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”--James Madison, Federalist No. 51

The last element of the constitution I’d like to examine is the relative separation or concentration of power. I wrote my thoughts on this issuelast month, and expressed my preference for highly separated power. I described how separated powers have the benefits of forcing deliberation, bargaining and compromise between rival factions, rather than enabling one to run roughshod over  the other. I described how too much power in the hands of too few people can be dangerous. But I also described how for certain tasks where time and flexibility are of the essence, it’s also important not to have too many cooks in the kitchen. A good constitution balances these factors by dividing some powers, but leaving others to the discretion of a single, fast-acting decision making body. How does ours measure up?

In principle, pretty well. The three-branched system of government that was Madison’s brainchild features an interwoven web of partial powers, with each needing some degree of clearance from other bodies in order to truly operate. It was the first of its kind, the first to separate power so completely and distinctly. Since most of my readers are familiar with American law I needn’t provide the full list of these checks and balances. But what’s equally impressive about Madison’s system is that it separates this power without impeding the government’s ability to make on-the-fly adjustments in its day-to-day operations. Although Congress makes the law, the executive bureaucracy can make whatever enforcement adjustments necessary to maximize the law’s effectiveness (within the scope of the law, of course…sometimes we have problems with that). Although Congress has the power to declare war, once they have done so the president maintains full authority as commander in chief of the military and can use his full discretion on how to wield the military. Sometimes the political process can get messy and bogged down; that’s unavoidable and sometimes beneficial. But in general, it’s more than flexible enough to function as a single unit.

However, history has exposed some shortcomings with Madison’s model. Another function of the separation of powers is to prevent any one body from assuming more powers in practice than they have in theory, and in that regard most unbiased observers would say the constitution has come up short over the past century. The executive branch has seized far more power than any argue it was initially intended to have, and the other branches have been unable or unwilling to prevent these encroachments. For instance, the President no longer seeks congressional approval before engaging in blatant acts of war (referred to by another name) in other countries. He signs in “agreements” instead of “treaties” with other nations to prevent the necessity of Senate approval. He issues extremely loose “signing statements” or “executive orders” to turn his will into law without congressional authority. In this respect, Madison’s original design is failing to prevent the rise to dominance of one branch. And beyond the executive, the government as a whole now exercises far more powers than it is constitutionally allowed to, with the Supreme Court proving ineffective check on this growth over the long term. Does this mean Madison’s separation of powers has failed?

Well, yes and no. I’m not prepared to call his idea a bust for two main reasons. Firstly, if it has failed, it did so almost 200 years after its conception! That’s a mighty long shelf life. Madison certainly never expected it would hold up as long as it did; for the time frame he imagined, his system worked wonders. Besides, it’s still not dead just yet; the branches still do maintain some check on one another’s power, even if that check isn’t as strong as it used to be or was intended to be. Secondly, Madison also provided the people with a means of correcting whatever shortcomings they found in his design by means of constitutional amendment. If there exist ways to tinker with the system to fortify these checks, and we the people take advantage of them, his system might save itself. And even short of an amendment, it’s not like we haven’t had avenues of recourse to prevent, delay, and slow this growth of power. We’ve simply failed to take advantage of these legal courses. The watchdog was sleeping. That’s hardly the fault of the document itself, because all any constitution can possibly do is provide the ability to constrain government. The people need to actually do it.

Ultimately, a piece of paper cannot constrict government activity unless there are people willing to follow the instructions on it. Ultimately, we can only blame ourselves for failing to keep watch on our elected politicians. The British also had a constitution outlining the rights of man; it just wasn’t adhered to, because the King did as he pleased. Madison understood this and recognized that without some means of keeping the government in line, the enumerated powers system would not be followed. The three-branched system was his best shot at doing that, and for almost 200 years it did a pretty fine job. Today, politicians have invented all sorts of innovative ways to bypass this system and get their way, but powers are still more separated in America than they are in most other countries.

In conclusion, the US constitution’s division of power was brilliant for the times in which it was introduced, and it’s still plenty serviceable today. It might be made even better for future generations if the proper changes in attitude and policy are adopted. For making the system of checks and balances a celebrated part of American public life, and for providing the means to continually hone and refine that system, Madison’s finished product deserves high marks.