Saturday, July 1, 2017

Democracy in Chains...? Was that not the vision of the founders?

There has been a lot of buzz and controversy surrounding Nancy MacLean's book  "Democracy in Chains" in relation to how James Buchanan (a founder of the public choice school of economics) and others especially connected to George Mason University have been mischaracterized in the book (see these two pieces from the WaPo here and here).

I want to zero in on one aspect of the book, pointed out by economist Russ Roberts, that also confuses me:

Russ Roberts quotes Nancy MacLean:

NM: "American democratic system of majority rule." 

RR: That phrase confuses me. The American system is a constitutional republic with very little majority rule. "


Note, I have not read the book but it makes me the book assuming that in fact the American system is actually a democratic system of majority rule vs. a constitutional republic that greatly restricts majority rule? Is it arguing that the latter is just a fabrication of Koch funded propaganda? And all of those taking Koch money are antidemocratic shills conspiring to covertly establish a libertarian utopian America? Is Nancy (a historian) ignorant of American History, or is she blatantly distorting it....being intellectually dishonest? Or does she (and by she I really should all along say those that think like her)  have some rather complicated and nuanced view of our history and constitution that you've got to read the book to understand because simply reading our founding documents and standard history textbooks leave something out???

I'm not sure....but the notion of an American system as a constitutional republic certainly predates James Buchanan and the Koch brothers. If we are going to be critical of the historical misinterpretations  and mischaracterizations found in "Democracy in Chains" at least we can give some credit. Noone has yet accused the author of claiming that the Federalist Papers or the Constitution were tantamount to Koch funded studies. But I have not yet read the book.

Our founders were well aware (without Koch money by the way) that a democratic system of majority rule was dangerous and they proposed a constitutional solution to check the kinds of abuses and powers that came with majority rule:

As stated in Federalist #10:

"From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties."

In Federalist #10 they also warned us about the populist appeals and uprisings that may result from the above, but proposed a solution:

“A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project…we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”

The purpose of the constitution was to ensure that the government did very little without the consent of the governed, but consent was not tantamount to majority rule.  For the most part, this was achieved through legislation held in the strict bounds of enumerated powers, with expanded powers of government coming through the amendment process.  This strict adherence to constitutional principles was the foundation for a workable democratic constitutional republic, as stated by economist Thomas Sowell in  Judicial Activism Reconsidered,

“The federal Constitution is "the supreme law of the land," not because it is more moral than state constitutions or state or federal legislative enactments, but because it represents a larger and more enduring majority. Minorities receive their constitutional rights from that enduring majority to which transient majorities bow, not from whatever abstract moral rights are imagined to exist as a brooding omnipresence in the sky.”

Democracy, limited by strict adherence to constitutional principles meant that government would have few powers and resources to spend on corporate interests or other special interests that can distort our democratic processes through campaign finance, lobbying etc.

Thomas Jefferson (who by the way had no connections to the Koch brothers) had the idea:

“in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution” - Kentucky Resolutions, 1798

I think the title "Democracy in Chains" is a good title for a book, and perhaps a better description of the American System than "democractic system of majority rule." But I think reading the book will reveal something quite different in the mind of the author and others that think like her.

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