Trading Democracy for Aristocracy
Bill Clinton said something today on the health care bill that made me shudder:
“The point I want to make is: Just pass the bill, even if it’s not exactly what you want,” Clinton told Democrats. “When you try and fail, the other guys write history.”
One thing I hope is generally true of conservatism and libertarianism is that there ought to be no cause that is worth saying this about. Liberals tend to think governance is about bringing grand new legislation into the world. Conservatives and libertarians tend to think preserving the rule of law, preserving order, and preserving basic, traditional rights implicit in the very fabric of our political order, are the only true objectives of government. In fact, this is the proper understanding of “limited government”—government that is not limited in its objectives cannot possibly be limited in any other sense.
As I’ve worked my way through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America—beginning and pausing a few months ago, and resuming a couple of weeks ago—the health care issue has lent unending points of contrast to the America Tocqueville visited in the 1830s and the America of today. A hundred and seventy years will yield striking changes, of course, but given our founding documents and basic organization of government are still largely unchanged, the difference in the modern posture towards government is disturbing. For example, as Tocqueville notes:
In the eyes of democracy, government is not a good; it is a necessary evil. Officials must be accorded a certain power; for without this power, what use would they serve? But the external appearances of power are not indispensable to the operation of affairs; they needlessly offend the public’s sight.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Univ. Chicago Press, 2002 (Mansfield and Winthrop, eds.) at 194.
It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fact that in a unicameral United States of America, we would now have passed both a comprehensive health care reform bill and also the most important piece of environmental legislation in the history of the world. Now that’s not the world we live in. Instead we live in a world where neither of those things has passed and where their prospects aren’t clear. But think back on this point the next time you hear someone say Obama is struggling with his agenda because he’s not centrist enough, or else that Obama is struggling with his agenda because he’s not left-wing enough.
Health-care reform passed with 50.5 percent of the vote in the House. Cap and trade passed with 50.8 percent. Neither margin would’ve been nearly enough in the Senate. Whether or not you think Nancy Pelosi had a couple more votes in her back pocket, it’s pretty clear that she didn’t have 41 more votes, which is what she would’ve needed to pass health-care reform if the House worked by the Senate’s inane rules. Pelosi really does seem like a great speaker, but a lot of the ire directed at Harry Reid would be more appropriately aimed at the rules he labors under.
In other words, these kids seem wistful over America having traded a wise and skillful aristocracy for our American democracy. Tocqueville again:
Aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself, it is not subject to getting carried away in passing distractions; it has long designs that it knows how to ripen until a favorable occasion presentes itself. Aristocracy proceeds wisely; it knows the art of making the collective force of all its laws converge at the same time toward the same point.
It is not so in democracy: its laws are almost always defective or unseasonable.
Id. at 222.
The problem with Klein saying things like we should pass clumsy and ineffective and bloated laws because “once the programs [are] passed into law, they [will] slowly and continually improve” is that democracy, by design, does not work that way. Society may prosper despite far-reaching, complex and often counter-productive legislation, but America’s famous prosperity was certainly not earned because of such legislation. Moreover, such legislation could not even hope to inure to Americans’ benefit where “the general tendency of the law” compliments—or at least does not injure—the Americans’ natural genius in industry and economic activity. The Democrats’ health care plan is the opposite—by design. As Bill Maher, for example, has repeatedly said, health care is no place for the profit-motive.
In other words, America is able to prosper despite not having an efficient law-making political organization precisely because this means Americans are left unencumbered by the very thing efficient law-making political organizations produce: large and expensive legislation that cramps innovation and industry.
As for Bill Clinton’s unseemly aristocratic push for health care legislation, here is one final thought from Tocqueville:
Those charged with directing the affairs of the public in the United States are often inferior in capacity and morality to the men that aristocracy would bring to power; but their interest intermingles and is identified with that of the majority of their fellow citizens. They can therefore commit frequent infidelities and grave errors, but they will never systematically follow a tendency hostile to that majority; and they cannot succeed in impressing an exclusive and dangerous style on the government.
Id. at 223. Given the steadily declining support for a public option, statements like Clinton’s and Eric Massa’s clearly indicate they are “systematically follow[ing] a tendency hostile to th[e] majority.”
It would be said indeed if Tocqueville’s America has passed, and we are instead left with Clinton’s and Obama’s and Pelosi’s America, where legislators are kings, and Americans have traded their self-rule for the warm blanket of a welfare state.
Fifty-four percent of respondents to the latest CNN poll disapprove of Barack Obama’s performance on the economy, a 17-point swing in six weeks. That isn’t the worst of the poll, either; 57% now disapprove of Obama’s performance on health care, a 19-point swing in that same time.