*The Once and Future King*

by on March 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm in Books, Law, Political Science | Permalink

The author is my colleague F.H. Buckley and the subtitle is The Rise of Crown Government in America.  I am very enthusiastic about this book, which is a comparative study of American and Canadian systems of government with respect to the abilities to produce varying degrees of tyranny, in the former case mostly through the executive branch.  Buckley is himself from Canada and overall favors that system of government.  Here are two excerpts:

That was why McGee and the other Fathers thought Canada the freest country in the world.  When they looked south, they saw a country with more of Constant’s liberty of the ancients, but with less (so it seemed to them) of the liberty of the moderns.  Moreoever, of the former, the right of self-government had been corrupted by political machines and trivialized by elections for dogcatchers.  The high ideals of the American Founders had been forgotten, and McGee thought that their republican virtue, in the era of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, was now little more than American braggadocio.

And:

Presidential regimes are more likely than parliamentary ones to turn into dictatorships, and to rank lower on measures of public corruption.  Thus far we have examined two explanations for this: The president is the head of state and symbol of the nation; and he is relatively immunized from accountability to the legislature.  We now turn to a third possible explanation: The separation of powers creates inefficiencies in government that invite the president to step in and correct, and in so doing, to augment his powers and independence from congressional oversight.

I would argue that, for better or worse, a big part of the differences is driven, not only by constitutions but also by the much more active foreign policy of the United States.  I wonder what a true parliamentary discussion of nuclear weapons use would look like.

Wonks Anonymous March 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm

The UK has long had a Parliamentary system and the most active foreign policy before the U.S took the reins. It didn’t acquire nukes after after the U.S became dominant, but still seems like a good place to look for your hypothetical.

Ray Lopez March 13, 2014 at 2:56 pm

This book is revisionist history. It’s rubbish. In fact the Legislative Branch is indeed the most powerful branch of government, as numerous Supreme Court decisions have stated. While it’s true that the President can destroy the world 30 times over, since he carries the nuclear football, it’s an academic distinction given the true day-to-day power of Congress.

RL

Book review:
F. H. Buckley’s book debunks all these myths. America isn’t the freest country around, according to the think tanks that study these things. And it’s not the Constitution that made it free, since parliamentary regimes are generally freer than presidential ones. Finally, what we think of as the Constitution, with its separation of powers, was not what the Founders had in mind. What they expected was a country in which Congress would dominate the government, and in which the president would play a much smaller role.

Sadly, that’s not the government we have today. What we have instead is what Buckley calls Crown government: the rule of an all-powerful president

So Much for Subtlety March 13, 2014 at 10:12 pm

It is also true that the President can ignore the law as Congress wrote it – as the President asked them to write it actually. As we see with Obamacare. He can also ignore the Constitutional requirement not to make appointments without consulting Congress.

In fact it remains to be seen what this White House thinks it can’t do.

America has an Imperial Presidency like never before. Even before Obama started setting the IRS, the EPA and the CIA on his domestic enemies.

Boonton March 14, 2014 at 8:35 am

Kindly cite an example of Obama ignoring the Obamacare law. By this I mean please cite the actual action by Obama and the actual passage in the law that prohibits him from doing that.

The Anti-Gnostic March 14, 2014 at 9:48 am

My understanding is Obama pulled this unilateral extension for individual compliance straight out of his arse. There is no provision for an opt-out or waiver by the Executive. But, I’m not going to dig thru a thousand page “law” to find the chapter and verse. So maybe I’m wrong.

I actually wouldn’t be surprised if there is some nuance or interpretation that could be cited for just about whatever Obama wants to do in this area, and that is a huge problem. No law should ever be this recondite. But Congress recoils from accountability, so lobbyists and staffers draft these monstrosities that the legislators don’t even read, and then they bob and weave thru procedural thickets all designed to give them some fig leaf in the event public sentiment shifts the other way.

The Executive has the bully pulpit and command/control for the military so short of the proverbial live boy or dead girl, he can get away with a lot.

The problem in general is that we have arrived at a place where voting doesn’t actually change the government. (And it’s too early to start shooting.) Even the “Reagan Revolution” ends up a disaster for fiscal hawks as the debt just piles up and up.

Boonton March 14, 2014 at 2:30 pm

So it would be a simple matter for someone harmed by the extension (say an insurance company counting on sales from people seeking to meet the mandate) to file suit for an injunction overturning the extension.

So Much for Subtlety March 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm

As if an insurance company would dare try it. They are depending on the Federal government to funnel billions their way – and if anyone crosses Obama, well, he has form for retaliation. He is, after all, about to destroy their industry and attach it to the Federal teat. They cannot dare.

The Republicans are generally weaker when it comes to legal challenges. But Obama has granted exemption for everyone – until after the next election.

Phill March 14, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Well, except he’s not ignoring the constitutional requirement because recess appointments are an explicit power of his – which he had to use because the GOP were refusing to confirm any appointments.

I don’t know what the EPA and CIA was about, but the IRS Tea Party scandal was a non starter.

So Much for Subtlety March 14, 2014 at 7:42 pm

The Constitution does not say that if the President picks such radical candidates that Congress won’t approve them, then the President can unilaterally pretend Congress is in recession, when it isn’t, and appoint them anyway. At least I don’t know where it says that.

The IRS scandal is not a non-starter. It is the Pauline Kael phenomenon. No one *you*know* cares. A lot of other people do care. Lerner is still taking the Fifth which is only going to make it worse. Of course it will take until there is a Justice Department that cares about Justice to do anything about it. Those people too closely associated with the Tea Party got every possible Federal Agency looking into them – the EPA and everyone else. Third World thuggery basically.

Aaron Luchko March 15, 2014 at 5:23 am

Except congress doesn’t have the ability to intelligently wield that power. Congress is a body of 538 individuals who largely ended up there by being unusually partisan members of disproportionately partisan districts. For instance I don’t think the power of the Tea Party is an expression of congressional power but a result of the lack of it. The lack of any one power inside the Republican congress meant that they were beholden to outside forces, they’re subject to control both by big business (ie financial sector) and big media (Tea Party). This results in both regulatory capture and ill-advised tactics like the debt ceiling shutdown because congress is powerless to fight it.

I feel the Canadian system’s advantage is that the Parliament is both powerful and subjected to constant questioning. The parties are united and strong enough to act in their own long term interest against the media narrative and to resist lobbyist influence.

Bill Harshaw March 13, 2014 at 3:18 pm

“inefficiency” of the separation of powers is interesting. I’ve the impression that in the area of farm policy, the Canadian government can turn on a dime, when government control changes, at least as compared to the prolonged farm bill debates the US government has had. There’s also been much more involvement at the provincial level than there is with states in the US. On the other hand some Canadian policies, like supply management for dairy and poultry, are surprisingly persistent. In farm policy, however, the US President is very very limited in what he can do. The iron triangle lives.

Adrian Ratnapala March 14, 2014 at 1:25 am

Yes, I think PMs — or at least Cabinets — are more powerful than US presidents. They essentially cannot become PM unless they control at least the more powerful house of parliament. Also and party discipline (i.e legislators voting on party lines) was normal in Parliamentary democracies but is a new and frightening thing in the US.

Ricardo March 14, 2014 at 4:07 am

In the U.S., the two party system tends to mask the coalitions that make up each political party. Also, party discipline can work in a Parliamentary system but in a separation of powers system where the Executive and Legislative branches can be led by opposite parties, it is a recipe for chaos. Divided government along with some quirky rules like the filibuster means that you might not have the supermajority needed to pass legislation or appoint judges and officials but then the opposition party won’t have enough votes to impeach the President and Vice President.

B.B. March 13, 2014 at 3:50 pm

One observation: The Economist, I believe, noted that monarchial power in England (UK?) has not decreased in 300 years but merely migrated from the Crown to the prime minister. At least the true monarch is elected.

Insofar as the parliament and prime minister are the same party and are integrated (set aside coalition governments), there is a true potential for dictatorial power. The ruling party has no check, except catcalls from the minority opposition and a chance of losing the next election. In the US, Congress can check the president.

I would add a popular check. If the president is a bozo, the people can throw him out of power, even if they vote for a member of Congress of the same party. “Ticket splitting” happens all the time. With a parliamentary system, ticket splitting is not possible. If you always vote for your party, you will get whatever prime minister the party wants, no matter how much of a bozo he is. A separate vote for president is a check on power.

It has been said that the British parliamentary system works because it is British, not because it is parliamentary. The other successful examples in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are in British based populations. Such a system in the USA would make not us like UK or Canada but like Italy or India.

Canada is a wonderful country, but I would not, taking all into account, call it more free than the USA.

Pithlord March 13, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Actually, most democracies in the world are parliamentary. Lots of Latin American countries and other places in the American orbit (like the Phillipines) have tried a Madisonian system, but it hasn’t worked out. Only the US has been able to make the Madisonian system work (assuming it works).

The difference with Italy or Israel is the first-past-the-post system (which usually generates majority governments with a plurality of votes), not some special cultural Angloness.

I am not sure why you think Canada is more British ethnically than the US. In both countries, people with exclusively British ethnic ancestry are a small (but influential) minority, while people with some British ancestry are a much larger group without any ethnic consciousness of themselves as such. Obama made a big deal about one Irish ancestor, but of course he’s mostly WASP culturally and almost half genetically.

Steve Sailer March 13, 2014 at 9:27 pm

The percentage of major party presidential nominees in America with surnames harkening to either the British Isles or the Netherlands (Van Buren, Roosevelts) remains strikingly high.

Roy March 14, 2014 at 1:04 am

The only two presidents with no British ancestry were Van Buren, Dutch, and JFK, Irish. Looking at the next election, other than Rubio and Cruz, I don’t see a single non anglo saxon contender. This is interesting because the largest ethnic group in America are Germans, but only five US presidents have had German ancestry including Washington and Obama, the others were Hoover, Eisenhower and Nixon. As a Scandinavian American I note that we have a square head president.

And people say WASP ascendancy is over.

dearieme March 14, 2014 at 5:40 am

Anyone Irish is almost bound to have British ancestry, and vice versa. Its just a wee archipelago, you know.

Boonton March 14, 2014 at 8:36 am

Double check, Obama’s British ancestry?

josh March 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

IIRC, Obama has Mayflower ancestry (as do many old stock Americans, of course).

Boonton March 14, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Come to think about it, isn’t hte Royal family itself German?

dearieme March 14, 2014 at 2:57 pm

“isn’t hte Royal family itself German?”: yes, but a bit diluted now, the late Queen Mum having been a Scot. And William’s mother was English. And wee George’s mother is English too. And of course Parliament appointed that family in the first place because that particular bunch of Germans was itself Scottish, again diluted. And that Scottish family was itself part French, Welsh, English and so on and so on and so on.

“A member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, Prince Philip was born in Greece into the Greek and Danish royal families,” again with plenty of German ancestry. The point being that Germany was the place with heaps of Princes, Electors, Royal Dukes and whatnots who were protestant (and keen to escape their rural backwaters into the wider world, I’d imagine).

Roy March 14, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Exactly The Kennedy’s were overly proud of their Norman surname Fitzgerald. Which leaves just old Kinderhook as the sole representative of the non-English.

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Culturally, Obama is mostly a Jayhawk Yankee from his Kansas ancestors. His prep school in Honolulu is very New England Yankee in origins, too. If the Bushes were from the commercial go-getter side of Yankeedom, Obama is from the academic / State Department / do-gooder side of Yankeedom.

RohanV March 13, 2014 at 5:01 pm

“The ruling party has no check, except catcalls from the minority opposition and a chance of losing the next election.”

Perhaps this is not a weakness, but a strength. The ruling party has all the power, but it also has all the responsibility. There are no excuses for the ruling party. In Canada, the ruling party can even override the Charter of Rights if they so desire, and are willing to pay the eventual electoral cost.

In the US, it seems that no branch of government (save maybe the Supreme Court) truly bears responsibility for decisions. The President blames Congress, Congress blames the Senate, the Senate punts to the Supreme Court.

So long as the ruling party cannot evade the judgement of future elections, and elections remain first-past-the-post (ensuring that the ruling party has broad support), maybe checks and balances are not as necessary as the American system thinks they are.

In some ways, the Canadian system is “give them enough rope to hang themselves” (see Brian Mulroney), and that seems to have worked pretty reasonably.

dearieme March 13, 2014 at 8:33 pm

“The ruling party has no check”: that rather misses the point that his party can dismiss the PM when it wants to. Look at the case of Mrs Thatcher: the Conservative MPs had decided that she would lead them to defeat in the next General Election, and sacked her. It worked too: John Major won the election.

Apart from the rarely used impeachment process, the US seems powerless to do much about someone who is conspicuously failing in office. Mrs T in office had been right again and again, but seemed to her supporters and opponents to be becoming unbalanced with vainglory; it was her extraordinary misjudgement over the “poll tax” that brought her down. Contrast with LBJ’s catastrophic war in Vietnam. (I should emphasis that I am not comparing the character of Maggie with the odious LBJ, just comparing the consequences of the failure of a flagship policy.)

There may be reasons of principle why parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy shouldn’t work but it certainly has worked well in the British and ex-British world, in Scandinavia, and in the Low Countries. It even showed its mettle in post-Franco Spain, with the King springing into action to secure parliamentary government during an attempted coup. How long parliamentary government can be sustained in countries with a minor, figurehead President remains to be seen. There again, maybe everyone should learn from the Swiss. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s even, gasp!, the French system.

ohwilleke March 13, 2014 at 9:28 pm

One of the key distinctions among parliamentary systems is how MPs are elected.

At one extreme, exemplified by Italy and Israel, there is a fairly pure proportional representation system, which gives rise to many political parties some of which have few MPs each. In this kind of MP electoral system, it is very hard for any one party to get a majority in parliament and Prime Ministers are elected by fragile coalitions of parties formed after elections that frequently realign into fairly similar coalitions tweaked by the winds of politics and constant renegotiation of coalition forming “treaties.”

At the other extreme are systems which elect MPs from single member districts by a plurality. This trends towards any given locality having just two viable parties, although in some countries the two viable parties are different in different regions, rather than national as in the U.S. This tends to produce reliable majorities with a U.K./Canadian style of Prime Minister of the majority party as CEO of the nation subject to removal by a friendly board of directors in the form of his own majority party in parliament.

In between you have countries like Germany who have proportional representation with more limitations (a 5% minimum in that case) that produce a smaller number of parties and more predictable and stable coalitions.

Erik Køie March 13, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Coming from a country with proportional representation (Denmark), the logic of first-past-the-post systems seems totally skewed. It inevitably creates two-party systems, which breed partisanship and divisiveness. It creates safe districts, which can create poor representatives, and which, more importantly, lessens public interest and involvement, since there is no real logic in voting in an uncontested election. Major parts of society (and several branches of political thought) are not represented in the political system.

I do see the advantage of each elected official being directly elected and is not as dependent on the party, but it seems like you guys are paying a high price.

With true multi party systems and coalition governments, there is no real need for checks and balances. If government oversteps its powers, sooner or later a party inside or outside of government will withdraw its support and the government will fall. At the same time, the existence of multiple parties with somewhat overlapping ideological foundations creates enormous competition and forces all parties to continue to evolve and to develop new policies that will resonate with the populace. For instance, in Denmark we currently have four center-right parties represented in parliament (a social conservative/neoconservative populist party, a pseudo-libertarian one and two straight center-right parties). Two of these are less than twenty years old, while three other parties of the right have lost their representation in the same period. Competition is a good thing, not only in the marketplace, but also in the marketplace of ideas.

The potential problem of policies changing with any new goverment is dealt with by getting (the equivalent of) bi-partisan support for the large majority of all bills. This happens because there is far more to lose by not compromising than there is to gain. Any party overplaying its hand will be ignored and suffer greatly at the next elections.

Obviously, countries like the UK and Canada show that first-past-the-post systems can work quite well, and American politics has other major problems (especially the amount of money in politics), but I can’t help but dream of how much better America (and by extension the rest of the world) would be off if the US switched to a unicameral parliamentary system with proportional representation.

Steve Sailer March 13, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Denmark’s multi-party political system allowed the rise of a new party devoted to cracking down on immigration fraud, which actually had a salutary effect on the government for a decade in this century.

RohanV March 14, 2014 at 12:24 am

@Erik Koie

Coming from a country with a first-past-the-post (Canada), the logic of proportion representation systems seems totally skewed. You end up with a lot of very narrow parties, each with their own axe to grind, and then haggling to form an unstable government. As well, two parties may both want something 90% of the country opposes, yet they trade votes so they both accomplish unpopular goals.

Meanwhile, in first-past-the-post, a political party must have broad support in order to rule. You have to be able to get seats from multiple areas of the country. There have been regional parties in the past (Bloc Quebecois, Reform) but they were limited in power. This support requirement means that political parties have more incentive to appeal to large sections of the country rather than specific regional or one-note interests.

This also means that parties are encouraged to compromise with dissident factions, because vote-splitting ends up costing both sides seats. In proportional representation, both factions would still retain roughly the same number of seats, and not necessarily have to compromise.

As well, there is no room for the individual in proportional representation. We still elect individuals, and individuals can break with their party. Independents do get elected to Parliament. As well, proportional representation guarantees specific individuals seats, depending on how powerful they are in their party. Even the Prime Minister himself has to get voted in as an individual.

In Canada, it is possible for a specifically unpopular Minister to go down to defeat, even though his party wins the elections at large. It’s even happened to some party leaders at the provincial level, though I don’t think it has happened at the federal level.

In our experience, relying on multiple parties to form a government, what we call minority governments, leads to instability and excessive drama. The electorate is perfectly capable of punishing a wayward party. In 1993, we reduced a deeply unpopular majority governing party from 156 seats to 2.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 1:36 am

Rohan,

I generally agree with you, but some of your criticisms don’t apply to all PR systems. So in Germany, the mixed member system allows for constituencies, and the 5% threshold at least limits the number of parties necessary for a coalition. It isn’t working very well right now, but that may be an exception, like the current situation in the UK and Canada for the decade before 2011.

Erik Køie March 14, 2014 at 11:46 am

@RohanV

“In proportional representation, both factions would still retain roughly the same number of seats, and not necessarily have to compromise.”

That is a good thing! Instead of assured mutual destruction, you have parties competing in a free political market. How can it be better that the Tories in the UK have to run right and isolationist in order to counter UKIP, rather than to have UKIP represented directly? That way they are directly accountable to voters. Also, vote splitting can lead to pluralities winning elections even if there is a majority in opposition. It seems to me that that is how Bill Clinton got elected in 1992. Is that really an ideal of democracy, to have the minority rule because the majority can’t cooperate?

Having more parties means more people are being represented and that all votes count. That is very inclusive. Also, it means minority factions are represented in geographical areas where they would not be able to win a first-past-the-post race. It means socialist MPs are elected in conservative, rural areas, and that conservative ones are elected in big cities. Surely better than the situation in the UK, where the Conservative party has been wiped off the map in the North. What are conservatives in those areas to do? How can they feel included or engaged in the political process?

Minority coalition governments might be less stable than majority governments, but over the last 32 years we’ve only had 4 governments. Plenty stable, methinks.

What you call haggling is what I call compromise, or making political deals. Why are deals a bad word in politics, when it’s a good one in business?

I will definitely conceed that it’s a strength that FPTP-systems elect politicians directly, and that it gives politicians a way to stand against party pressure. Our way of dealing with that is that a politician who falls out with his or her party can and will typically create a new party. If it has popular support, it survives. Most often of course, it falters. It is possible to be elected as an independent here as well, or to become an independent after election. I don’t see a big practical difference.

I’m sure Canada is a great country, definitely superior to the US in every way, but I don’t think I could be more happy with a political system than the one in my own country. There is not one party I’d want to get rid off. 95 % of MPs are honest, hard-working, reasonably smart and are doing their best to help the people that elect them. I can hardly think of a single one who is there for their own gain, across the entire spectrum.

Also, we haven’t even mentioned the folly that is bicameral legislatures.

Steve Sailer March 13, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Our current president straddles the ceremonial and managerial roles of the combined head of state / head of government Presidency without being all that good at either one.

I think the roles should be split and America should have a ceremonial head of state (more or less a king, with say a ten-year term) who is always a black man. Mature black actors — e.g., James Earl Jones in the 1990s, Morgan Freeman in the 2000s, Denzel Washington today — would be ideal. Sports stars should be considered as well: e.g., seven-foot Annapolis grad David Robinson would be a good candidate for the 2020-2029 term.

Erik Køie March 13, 2014 at 10:00 pm

That joke would be funnier if you didn’t already sound like a bigot 70 % of the time…

Steve Sailer March 13, 2014 at 11:34 pm

It’s not a joke. Different cultures want different kind of leaders. De Gaulle figured out that the French want an elected king, so he rewrote the constitution so he, personally, could fulfill that role. Putin believes Russians want a strong czar. The Brits, in contrast, don’t much like strong prime ministers: they kicked out Churchill and Thatcher in their moments of foreign policy triumph.

I’ve been observing American culture since the late 1960, and what Americans want these days is a noble black man to be their ceremonial leader. Really, is that too much to ask?

prior_approval March 14, 2014 at 4:08 am

‘It’s not a joke.’

You’re right – the joke is to think you aren’t a bigot 100% of the time.

dearieme March 14, 2014 at 5:45 am

Black actors certainly tend to have the voice for it.

Boonton March 14, 2014 at 8:39 am

It actually makes sense to kick out a leader after their ‘moment of triumph’. What were the odds, really, that the next thing Churchill would have pulled off would have trumped winning WWII? Dumping someone right after they peak seems harsh but it actually is probably very rational.

Roy March 14, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Steve may be a racist, and wrong most of the time, but this idea made me think of a book:

“The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E. (Social History of Africa Series)” by Kairn A. Klieman

It is how a marginalized and even enslaved group who is widely considered subhuman can have magical ceremonial leadership powers attributed to it.

Pithlord March 13, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Lots of Latin American countries have adopted presidential systems of government, and this generally hasn’t worked. After WWII, the US generally supported parliamentary government (with proportional representation) where it was in a position to impose a form of democracy.

A lot of American observers seem to think that in a Westminster-style system, the executive has less power relative to the legislature that in the US. That of course is backwards. Like it or not, all a Westminster-style parliament can really do is debate the executive’s decisions. The US is moving in that direction as well, with more disciplined parties, but with the ability of the minority party to gum everything up.

Steve Sailer March 13, 2014 at 6:19 pm

It would seem like the British system has beaten the American system overall in terms of global popularity and effectiveness. But why?

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 1:32 am

Parliamentary systems lead to more effective governments because there are fewer veto points, and clearer accountability. No business corporation has ever been modeled on Madisonian lines.

Of course, that is not a bug but a feature. Arguably, America’s society and economy are better because its government is worse. Still, it is a pretty hard mix to transplant elsewhere.

Steve Sailer March 14, 2014 at 6:44 pm

Thanks.

Brett Dunbar March 16, 2014 at 12:21 pm

The Westminster system is a product of parliament’s total dominance. The government is whoever controls parliament, so the government always controls parliament as if you don’t control parliament you aren’t the government. The strength of the system is that it emphasises accountability as the government has pretty much all the power it cannot disclaim responsibility if something goes wrong.

Locke March 13, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Party systems, which are the result of voting systems, are the confounding factor here.

alex March 13, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Obviously without reading the book it’s hard to really evaluate the argument, but Canada’s Prime Minister, if he/she enjoys a majority government, has tons and tons of power. The PM (with a majority government), controls parliament completely – in Canada, there is tight party discipline, so legislators rarely vote against the PMs wishes; if they do, the PM can discipline them, or ruin their careers (as the PM signs party nomination papers, and is responsible for cabinet appointments). So, it’s potentially very tyrannical compared to a presidential system. However, it is more flexible – because the PM is basically appointed by the party and caucus, not the electorate, he/she can be removed without election in the event of a crisis or logjam. This may help avoid breakdowns which lead to dictatorship; (some observers have noted that Chile might have avoided a coup if Allende could have been removed by the legislature without an election and a parliamentary system would have allowed for that).

Joe Smith March 13, 2014 at 5:16 pm

The US has had lengthy periods of isolationism.

Canada had a full on debate about nuclear weapons and it was a significant election issue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIM-10_Bomarc

tt March 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm

i hope he’s got citations in there, or else he is a time travelling mind reader.

Tom West March 13, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Indeed majority governments in a parliamentary system can be thought of as serial dictatorships. I suspect it’s mostly cultural factors that prevent deterioration into outright tyranny. Having said that, the current Canadian Conservative government seems to be willing to change the electoral rules in its favor far more than previous governments, although it’s still probably fairly small potatoes all things considered.

(In my observation, the “our job is to win, not to play fair” attitude seen in the highest circles of the Conservatives seems to have migrated northward along with a fair number of hired American electoral advisers.)

Locke March 13, 2014 at 8:32 pm

You mean the attitude that defines all politicians?

Tom West March 15, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Having known a few people who’ve gone into politics, I don’t think there’s a particularly larger ratio of rogues in politics than in any thing else.

Now of course, there’s a few who are convinced that the entire world is populated by sociopaths (and perhaps a few hapless victims), but a simple glance at those around oneself (unless one is particularly unlucky) is enough to disprove that.

Steve Sailer March 13, 2014 at 6:20 pm

12-7-1941 was not a good day for limited Constitutional government.

Ryan T March 13, 2014 at 7:48 pm

“I wonder what a true parliamentary discussion of nuclear weapons use would look like.”

Only in the Canadian system would the public know the details of such a discussion.

David Johnston March 13, 2014 at 9:08 pm

It would be interesting to explore cause and effect aspects of our system of government (and it’s current state) and the degree of activity in foreign policy of the U.S.

The timeline would tend to support that our level of foreign involvement was caused by the government structure and not the other way around.

Erik Køie March 13, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Great Britain used to be pretty involved when they were the world’s superpower.

ohwilleke March 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Empirically, public trust and perceptions of honesty and lack of corruption are not all that closely related to actual truthfulness, but have an intimate inverse relationship with public participation in negotiations. The public, in general, does not trust people who negotiate. In part, this is because negotiation intrinsically involves a special kind of legally permitted dishonesty – lies about your real bottom line deal breaker number.

In a parliamentary system, there is far less visible negotiation. A Prime Minister is elected, and if that Prime Minister is backed by a majority in parliament, that Prime Minister’s legislative proposals always pass. There is very little public negotiation between the Prime Minister’s party and other political parties, between the legislature and the executive, between different houses of the legislature (except in very rare and short lived circumstances where the Canadian Senate has created a speed bump), or between party leaders and the heads of government and heads of principle departments. Obviously, there is some (mostly) behind the scenes negotiation within ruling parties in Parliamentary systems, but all of the debating is strictly for show with the outcome a foregone conclusion.

In contrast, in the American system of government, there is constant negotiation between the President and Congress, most bills even in times of one party control of Congress pass only after negotiations in Conference Committees, a President has to negotiate with leaders of other political parties, individual members of Congress and factions in his own political party, merely to appoint minor federal bureaucracy officials and to pass a budget and the President has no formal authority to introduce legislation at all but can do an end run around Congress with regulations.

Is it any surprise that a public that hates negotiators has a low opinion of the American system?

Erik Køie March 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm

You make it sound like the public hates negotiations, but maybe what the public really hates is bribery. The amount of pork in US politics seems way higher than what is generally seen in parlamentery systems. Combine that with gerrymandering, lobbying, an amount of money in politics that blurs the line of bribery, and the obscenely high incumbency rates in Congress, the public’s low opinion seems very well founded.

The US system is obviously broken–to the point where it hardly looks like a democracy from the outside.

prior_approval March 13, 2014 at 11:35 pm

And the people running the system from the inside don’t want it any other way.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Pork is just a name for geographically-based Coaesean bargains. If you have a lot of veto points and those veto points are accountable to a particular place, the only way to solve the problem is to trade off a bridge here for a museum there. If want you want is a broad and neutrally-administered social insurance state, then this is bad. But that’s not what the designers wanted. You are just bitching that your word processor doesn’t add numbers very well.

RM March 14, 2014 at 1:11 am

I will stick to first amendment rights, ignoring a lot of other things Americans take for granted, because few in the US find free speech objectionable.

Ezra Levant and everyone who has ever run afoul of Canada’s human rights commissions or the Canadian custom’s service, might question whether Canada is less prone to tyranny than the US.

dearieme March 14, 2014 at 5:51 am

“few in the US find free speech objectionable”: that may perhaps be true in the sense of freedom from interference by the Federal government. But as a social habit, I’d say that Brits, Aussies and Kiwis, for instance, are used to much freer speech. And I’ve seen enough many an American, visiting these peoples, dropping his jaw at what’s socially acceptable, to think I’m right on this.

But I will admit that the American custom of compulsorily being mealy-mouthed are invading even there. By contrast, good American customs seem to stay at home. Pity.

patricklyons March 14, 2014 at 10:15 am

I like how you’re suggesting that these other countries are more free because the people there are less critical of blatant racism and sexism

dearieme March 14, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Oh dear, oh dear, the Great American Obsessions reveal themselves, and are projected onto other people. Thank God that not all Americans are so parochial.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Canadians are even more mealy-mouthed than Americans. So the social pressures are even worse here. Although I expect that America might be worse on the score of people losing their jobs for saying controversial things (no doubt because there are fewer union and legal protections). I actually get a bit shocked by how quickly that happens in the US.
Americans are likely to exaggerate the reign of fear imposed by our human rights commissions. They are actually laughable bureaucracies, and I have never met anyone who is scared of them.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 1:28 am

People who think the relatively functionality of Canadian politics is about culture, not institutions, need to explain why when we get a chance to directly elect an executive, we end up with Rob Ford.

Roy March 14, 2014 at 4:36 am

Because it is a figurehead post that was created as part of amalgamation. This consolidation was wildly unpopular with many suburban Torontonians there was a referendum the year before in which three quarters opposed it. Rob Ford is a constant rebuke to the political class who foisted Toronto on an unwilling citizenry.

But since most Canadians do what they are told, it basically works.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 1:25 pm

I don’t buy that amalgamation was an anti-suburbs thing. It was Harris’s decision. I was living in Toronto at the time of amalgamation, not far from the Annex, and to say it was unpopular with downtown Toronto would be like saying a law requiring everyone in Utah to hand over their guns and make a sacrifice to Baal would not go over well. A former mayor made reference to armed resistance in 1837.

Roy March 14, 2014 at 5:08 pm

You are right it was universally unpopular. I was just thinking of the Hon. Rob Ford’s constituency.

T. Shaw March 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

I don’t know. Can a PM veto a parliamtary act requiring her/him to obey the laws passed by Parliament?

Apparently, Obama/Holder think the Teleprompter of the US may veto such legislation.

The problem is the US congress. It is a “parliament of whores and idiots.”

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm

A PM has to obey laws passed by Parliament. But a PM with a majority government can, in practice, change any of those laws.

I find it slightly odd that Americans love to blame Congress, while venerating the folks who set the system up in the first place. Don’t blame Boehner, blame Madison!

Roy March 14, 2014 at 5:10 pm

But a lot of Americans blame Congress for not being as extremist as the American doing the blaming.

So hating Madison depends on whether your party has or does not have power.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 6:38 pm

That, at least, is a universal failing among politically active people. Democratic governments can never please their supporters because the processes of politics moderate what they can do. That’s not a bug, but it explains a lot of why no one likes politics. If my guys aren’t in office, my side was robbed and we live in a dictatorship. If my guys are in office, they sold out by not doing everything I want them to do, and we live in a dictatorship.

Dan Hanson March 14, 2014 at 12:48 pm

One beneficial result of Canada’s strong party discipline is that it insulates individual members from the political consequences of locally unpopular decisions. In the U.S., everyone holds their elected representatives responsible for their votes. That leads to pork and NIMBY-ism. We don’t see the kinds of promises to bring home the bacon here in Canada that you see in the U.S.

Another feature is that strong party discipline acts as a kind of herd protection against lobbyists and cronies. Since individual MPs mostly have to vote the party line, they can’t be bought off. Now, you could argue that this just pushes the corruption up to the party leadership, but there’s a lot more visibility at that level.

But one of the biggest reasons Canada is such a free country is more cultural than organizational. Canada’s government is run by Canadians, who tend to be a little more laid back and reasonable than their American counterparts. People here don’t generally live in fear of being audited by Revenue Canada, because being audited is generally a pretty reasonable process. I’ve been audited twice, and in both cases is was a simple mater of providing some photocopies of additional documentation, after which I was told “Thanks, eh?” and the issue was closed.

Likewise, on paper we have a lot of zoning laws and business regulations. In practice, government agents seem very reasonable about it. I’ve gone through a number of government inspections, and with one exception they’ve been exercises in reasonable compromise and quick resolution. None of this “Your business is shut down because your sinks are .5″ too high” nonsense you hear about in the U.S. At least in my experience.

Pithlord March 14, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Another way of putting that is Canadians are more comfortable with discretion in the hands of officials, as opposed to bright-line rules. If you look at it from the American point-of-view, that is itself tyranny. Where discretion is, law ends. From the Canadian perspective, it means the officials can exercise common sense.

Neither is better. They just do different things. Canadian government works more effectively, but American suspicion of government maybe the secret sauce that makes the country great (and its government lousy).

Dan Hanson March 14, 2014 at 5:23 pm

I look at it this way:

The American government structure was designed to prevent the accumulation of centralized power. The Parliamentary system is designed to allow government to wield the power it has effectively.

The U.S. problem is that the protections against accumulation of power have broken down, so the federal government wound up with all the power anyway. And the same features that were there to protect against that power make it nearly impossible for a strong central government to function coherently.

Unemployed March 20, 2014 at 11:36 pm

What do you think of Buckley’s other writings about Alexandria’s bike lane wars?

http://spectator.org/blog/58438/alexandria-bike-wars

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303482504579177811109786586

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