Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Happy Constitution Day! Now Go and Read This

When I was an undergraduate studying international relations and political philosophy back in the early, circa 1990-1993, Francis Fukuyama was huge. His 1989 essay "The End of History" (later expanded into a book) was essential reading. I'm pretty certain I never bought into his Hegelian interpretation of the history of liberal democracy, and in later years I found his apologetic balancing act regarding the Iraq War discomforting familiar to my own unfortunate trajectory. Still, I've always found him worth reading, particularly his reflections on Confucianism, social development, and civic trust. And thus it was with great interest when Damon Linker pointed his readers to this morning to this rather despairing essay by Fukuyama. Drawing on his latest work on the decay of political institutions, he apparently has just one basic thing to say to his fellow American citizens: might as give up.

Okay, maybe his doesn't quite go that far. But when you end a lengthy and detailed article, summarizing much political science research with numerous well chosen examples (though my friend David Salmanson is perhaps rightly complaining to me via e-mail about Fukuyama's treatment of the U.S. Forest Service), with "The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action," the headline of Damon's column--"America is Doomed!"--seems justified. Given my rather odd and radical mix of political preferences--Christian socialism, local community, populist economics, a decentralized and quasi-anarchic egalitarianism, etc.--it's not surprising that I'm quite open to root-and-branch condemnations of the liberal constitutionalism which defines our political order (though it was really only within that past few years that my despair with our particular approach to democratic government really began to flourish), and I recognize that general narratives of decline are a dime-a-dozen and deserve to be treated skeptically. Still, I think overall Fukuyama has thoughtfully and measuredly nailed our institutionally decay. Perhaps there is much more that could be said about the civic, moral, and structural roots of that decay, but in terms of proximate causes, it really is, as Damon commented to me, a tour-de-force.

So, in other words, you all should read it, and think about it. To whet your appetites (or perhaps to serve the needs of those who are curious but don't have a spare half-hour or so), let me summarize some of his main points by reconstructing them in a step-by-step, historical fashion:

1) The constitutional arrangement of the United States ended up--in part by building guarantees of individual rights, guarantees which came to be the interpretive prerogative of the judicial branch, into our fundamental law right from the beginning--enabling (or, at least, given the ideological backwash of the Revolution, legitimizing) a rise in a demand for political and economic democracy long before an administrative state capable of delivering of the democratic wishes of the people was established.

2) Consequently, through the 19th century political parties became the primarily deliverer of democratically demanded prizes--and as the country grew in size and complexity, this political and economic patronage became increasing corrupt, with locally elected representatives and locally elected or appointed judges enjoying enormous patronage resources.

3) The Progressive era was thus much more than simply cleaning up and regulating political parties and elections; it was also creating a set of expectations for administrative agencies--ones that reflected a late 19th-century/early 20th-century devotion to science and organization--that presented them as capable bearers of the public trust distinct from the buying and patronizing of political influence. Ideally, while these agencies would be subject to ultimate legislative (and thus democratic) oversight, they would be kept free from invasive and debilitating interest group interference.

4) Unfortunately, over the long haul, both our particular (separation of powers) constitutional arrangement and our particular (first-past-the-post) electoral system made it in the interest of elected representatives to seek the support of specific interest groups beyond the official agenda of their parties, and our individualism pushed against the regulations that had prevented the development of a hugely expensive campaign finance system which made such support necessary for the success of any individual politician. The combination of these made the ability of administrative agencies to remain free from the legislative veto-points that proliferated in our federal government--or even the desire of those working in said agencies to stay above them--rather negligible.

5) As a result, the judiciary became increasingly responsible for, and then eventually invested in, resolving disputes and issuing rules to patch over both the inability or unwillingness of our legislative bodies to effectively act on political consensus, and the incoherence of the dictates handed out to administrative agencies by a divided and interfering legislature. An executive which regularly took up authority that the legislative branch couldn't or wouldn't make use of, and issued executive orders which often tested the boundaries of its enumerated powers, giving the legislature and interest groups additional things to fight about, didn't help.

6) All this, of course, decreased the trust in and prestige of government, meaning that increasingly the purported meritocracy of the civil service didn't work, as the best and the brightest went elsewhere.

7) Lather, rinse, repeat. Or, as Fukuyama writes near his conclusion:

[T]he United States is trapped by its political institutions. Because Americans distrust government, they are generally unwilling to delegate to it the authority to make decisions, as happens in other democracies. Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government’s autonomy and cause decision-making to be slow and expensive. The government then doesn’t perform well, which confirms people’s lack of trust in it. Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will simply waste. But without appropriate  resources, the government can’t function properly, again creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to get out of this? I don't know. Some aim to overturn Citizens United and re-install some strong limits on the ability of powerful individuals and corporations to dictate where the incentives governing the decisions of our elected representatives lie. But frankly, I have little hope for that. But assuming that or some other such reform does work, what would keep the whole process from simply starting up again? Probably, I think, it would have to involve creating a more parliamentary set of institutions, meaning a wholesale change in our Constitution. Again, not something I'm holding our much hope for. See what I mean about despair?


Camassia said...

I'm happy to know volume 2 of Political Order is finally out. I don't read many poli-sci books but the first one was fascinating. Sounds like the second one might be more depressing, though.

I was interested in his passing comment in this article that Americans have grown accustomed to achieving things like racial justice through the courts, while other countries have achieved similar things through other branches of government. Seems like a crucial point because a lot of American progressives don't seem to believe the general public would ever have stopped being white supremacist on its own, which has led to some frankly illiberal sentiments about a lot of issues. What was really analogous in Europe or elsewhere to integrating descendants of slaves into a modern state? I mean, there was the end of serfdom, but that was a while before states became 'modern,' I would think.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for reading, Camassia. As for your question, I agree that his comment about Brown v. Board of Education was very revealing--and what he didn't mention (and I'm surprised that he didn't, because it directly supports his Hamiltonian point about the importance of an energetic and responsible executive) was President Truman's order to integrate the American military. You ask about the non-judicial "integrating [of] the descendents of slaves into a modern state," and that strikes me as a perfect example. In this particular case, you had a (for the U.S., perhaps rare) example of a mostly well-operating, mostly apolitical governing institution--the U.S. military--whose administrative head--the U.S. president--clearly had the efficient authority to make and follow up on this order. It required some forced retirements of top brass and further orders along the way, but it's undeniable that the military, after two generations of living under this order, is probably the most integrated and least racially troubled part of the whole United States. Certainly it's much better off than the judicially managed integration of public schools. Sure, one could say that this is apples and oranges; I wouldn't want my kid's public schools run top-down like the military. Still, it's a supporting point for his whole general argument that sometimes the best way to reflect democratic principles and implement consensus is through effective administrative orders, rather than constantly appealed court cases.