Governments began as soon as humans stopped travelling in small bands and started to congregate in imobile groups which gradually transformed from villages to cities. Strongmen were the first leaders who governed according to their might. They continue to hold sway over a large swath of the planet to this day. Two and a half millennia ago the people of Athens (the demos) took control of governance. Democracy, as it was accordingly named after those who held the franchise (free male adults), broke down after about a century. The demos proved fickle and inconstant. It resurfaced in the late 18th century in versions of representative or republican governments. The people did not govern directly, but elected representatives who acted on their behalf – at least in theory.
The problems with elected governments are several. They were apparent from the start of popular governance. Those inherent in authoritarian governance are so obvious that I will ignore them.
When all citizens of age are entitled to vote a few questions spring to mind. How many of them are wise? Use whatever definition of wisdom you choose, you’ll still conclude that the wise are in the minority – and by a lot. I do not equate education with wisdom. Intelligence is a precursor of wisdom, but most smart people are not wise. Thus of necessity, republican government is that selected by the unwise. Even if wisdom were universal it might be overridden by other human characteristics which seep over the government like sewerage.
The first is that power tends to inexorably move towards the center. The founders of the United States were aware of this problem and tried to prevent it in the Constitution they wrote. But war, time , and rent seeking eventually wore down the decentralizing provisions of the documents and the center came to command virtually all of human activity.
Next is centralizing’s sibling – corruption. Lord Acton’s aphorism about power is everywhere proven right. The creation of a permanent federal bureaucracy meant to defeat corruption by eliminating the political appointment of office holders every time a new regime took power had the opposite effect. Bureaucrats in place for decades control the workings of the government according to a preference separate from the electorate’s. The richest communities in the US are the bedroom counties surrounding Washington.
Also unanticipated by the founders are the permanent elected officials who write the laws. Secure in their offices they are sloppy in their legislative performance. They don’t pass individual budgets, they delegate the details of the laws they pass to the permanent bureaucrats, and they (really their staffs) write (copy and paste) enormous bills that no one person has ever read in its entirety that hand out favors to connected recipients in amounts of money beyond human reckoning. As power and influence move to the seat of the national government and as the Federal Register grows faster than a pituitary giant, personal liberty is maimed.
Free stuff is everywhere promised. The wealthy will pay for it my anteing up their ‘fair share’ in taxes. Nobody defines ‘fair share’ but it appears to be owed by those who make more money than those who petition for a ‘fair share’. In reality, the affluent do better no matter what the tax regime. As the government creates new money it first goes to those who already have a bunch. By the time it spreads through society its value has decreased. This phenomenon even has a name that’s three centuries old – The Cantillon Effect. Rent seekers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose.
Why is the military budget gargantuan in comparison to any other country? Yet we haven’t won a war in the last 75 years. (The first gulf war was a walkover.) The US military’s expenditure on materiel and supplies supports a mammoth arms industry. Cost overruns are encouraged and fully funded.
You can’t influence the federal government unless you have a $100 million lobbying budget. The individual is powerless against the might of the state. The modern ‘democratic’ governments of the West have become so obese and overfed that they will of necessity devour themselves. But they can do a lot of damage before they explode. The appearance of a plague, modest by historical standards, has revealed how suppine the populace has become, how easily they succumb to outrageous commands by the government at all levels, and accordingly how much additional pain and suffering can be inflicted on them in the name of the general welfare without fear of much resistance.
The bizarre marriage of the mega corporations and the government is as indisoluble as a catholic marriage of centuries past. The addition of a resurgent socialism has created a deformed troika beyond the wildest imaginings of any mythology. The public space is now under heavy censorship
Those who want to overturn the residual wraith of liberty in the US are an odd lot. They seem oblivious of the past. Every prescription they offer to cure the ills of society has proved far worse than a placebo in the past. They seem bent on disproving Faulkner’s: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Life is simple when the past is a blank slate. There are some downsides to a lousy education. Semiconsciousness mixed with lack of information may not stop furious activity, but it will generate unilluminated heat.
Mentioning education, can one still be had? Medical education is going down the memory hole. Soon you’ll be required to use a surgeon who has had sufficient sensitivity training to pass muster by the enlightened leaders of the healing arts who are indifferent to skill, but alert to outcomes. Patient beware. You may wish to keep your gallbladder to yourself.
OK, enough kvetching. What should be done? Easy to define, but virtually impossible to execute. The levers of power should be manipulated as close to those affected as possible. In other words, government should be as local as possible. Power may still corrupt, but when exerted locally the citizen has a chance to right things. A handful out of 330 million can be ignored or even punished. But if the same number of citizens (it’s not a dirty word) is part of 30 thousand they can have a meaningful impact and cannot be easily ignored much less castigated. But those possessed of power will not relinquish it. So decentralization is suppositious. Also government should be as lean as possible. As a general rule, vote against every bond initiative.
Polybius described how Scipio Aemelianus wept as he watched the destruction of Carthage that he had directed. When asked the reason for his tears he said that all things mortal are transitory and that one day the fate of Carthage would befall Rome. Sure enough, though it took 600 years, Rome fell. A later historian, Arnold Toynbee, declared that nations die by suicide. The US is putting Toynbee’s prediction to the test. The creation of previously invisible rights, limitless piles of computer generated money, genders by the bushel as part of the reimaging of biology – all by ledgerdomain combined with authoritarian rule and the abrogation of fundamental rights hitherto considered inviolable are sign of terminal distress. If an analogy to the seasons is allowed, we are into late fall. Enjoy the leaves.