Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is It Economics or Politics? Part 2

In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama has shown that a successful society requires a coherent and potent central state government.  Successful state governments over the logn run are those characterized by potency, accountability, and rule of law.  As cultures and societies develop in terms of literacy, successful states must possess all three characteristics.  The recent experience of the Arab Spring makes clear that simply being potent, indeed, even an all powerful dictatorship will not be able to maintain itself without accountability to citizens and a strong rule of law.  Any dictatorship that thinks it can maintain itself in power while simultaneously educating its population is fooling itself unless it also understands that it must limit its power through accountability to those governed and through the primacy of law over the law giver.  It is not reasonable to understand the current Occupy Wall Street phenomenon as a response to clear evidence that Wall Street elites are functionally above the law and have not been called to account for the financial debacle in which they participated and from which they profited.  To the extent that politicians and policy makers are seen as complicit with this "lawlessness," they could pay a heavy electoral price.

But this argument, salient as I believe it is, is not particularly relevant to the Tea Party and other libertarian foces--mainly in the Republican party though not exclusively--who desire to continue the dismantling of the federal governing structure that has asserted itself more strongly from 1930's New Deal through roughly the mid seventies.  Fukuyama points out that one of the traditional roles of a central governing authority has often been to protect ordinary citizens from powerful forces in a society, forces that if become too powerful can begin to abuse that power to advantage themselves and disadvantage those with less power.  Most of us stereotypically think of a king as a person with unlimited power who abuses and enslaves the ordinary folk of his  realm.  Actually the real picture is different.  Typically the King used his authority to counter the power and might of  the nobility who often abused the serfs who lives lives of indentured servitude to enrich the nobles.

It is also true that sometimes kings became too powerful and the nobles banded together to counteract that power on their on behalf and consequently on behalf of the serfs.  Often these conflict centered on the taxes levied by the crown to strengthen the central government and to defend against external enemies or wage wars of aggression and expansion.  The key seems to be a system in which there is a balance of power among the various factions.  It appears that inevitably when one faction becomes too powerful vis a vis others, it tends to abuse that power to advantage itself.

Americans can see this same balance of power issues played out in the formation of the United States.  The central question was whether  this country would be a confederation fo states or a sovereign nation with a strong central government that was not dependent upon the states for agreement with central policies especially including taxes.  The early experience with the confederacy approach convinced almost all that a confederacy would not work because it was not working.  A loose amalgam of sovereign states would not be able to achieve the potential of the new country and deliver on the promise of the revolution, let alone be able to pay the debts incurred in the War of Independence.  All thirteen states eventually approved the proposed Constitution with its strong central government and they did so through popularly elected conventions in each state.  The year long debate was often vociferous and at times rancorous but everyone eventually realized the wisdom of the central government approach.  This would have been the end of the discussion were it not for the fact of slavery and the inability of the founders and framers to deal with that abomination.

The one area where the federal government was forbidden by the constitution itself from taking action was slavery.  There could be no federal action outlawing this practice.  As a result the question of constraining federal power was often framed in terms of preventing the central government from constraining state governments.  Eventually the growing population in the non-slave states resulted in support for a federal policy of emancipation, i.e., forcing slave states to abandon their peculiar practice.  It took a bloody Civil War to settle the issue, actually two issues.  First, slavery was diametrically opposed to the principles of freedom and humanity embodied in the constitution.  Second, the federal government exercised proper sovereignty over the nation and the several states.

To be continued.