If I Were King

December 12th, 2009

If you were given absolute political power to change the American political system, what measures would you take? It’s an interesting thought exercise, and here are my answers:

1. Replace our presidential system with a parliamentary system.
Our current political system is hopelessly antiquated and way out of kilter. Did you know that senators representing just 11% of the American population can block any legislation? That’s because the rural states have far too much political power. This is one reason why rural states receive gigantic amounts of Federal money while urban states receive much less than they pay in taxes. It’s a rip-off, pure and simple, but it’s business as usual for the American government.

A parliamentary system is much more flexible and representative than our system. In such a system, people vote on a nationwide basis, not state by state. You vote for a party, not a candidate. Such systems typically have four or five parties: one primary center-left party, one primary center-right party, and then a bunch of special interest parties. You wouldn’t have to play "big tent" games with just two parties. My guess is that, were we to adopt such a system, we’d end up with the following parties:

Social Conservatives
Sarah Palin would lead this party. Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, and Anne Coulter would be its cheerleaders. It would get about 20% of the vote.

This would be the strongly leftist, anti-war party. Senator Edwards woud be its leader.

This would be larger than the current Libertarian party, and not as cuckoo.

This would probably hold the remains of the current Democratic party. Barack Obama is the obvious person to lead this party.

This would be what’s left of the Republican Party after the Social Conservatives leave. It would support business and a "responsible" foreign policy. Think of Senator Lieberman as leading such a party.

Of course, the pie could end up being sliced in different ways. But the important point is that everybody gets to vote for the party that most closely represents their own interests. That’s good. After all the votes in a national election are added up, representatives in Parliament are assigned in direct proportion to the votes they get. In other words, if your party gets 20% of the vote, it gets 20% of the representatives.

Once representatives have been allocated, the parties are ranked in order of size, and the party with the greatest number of representatives gets first crack at "forming a government". The purpose of this procedure is to assemble a coalition consisting of parties containing more than 50% of the representatives. The leader of the biggest party goes into negotiations with secondary parties to put together such a coalition. The idea is to horsetrade portfolios. That is, the government is broken down into ministries -- what we call departments. Each ministry has a minister who is a party leader. The final deal allocates ministries among the different parties. So if we had a coalition of the Old Democrats and the Greens, then the Greens would certainly want the Environmental Protection Ministry. They’d get a few more ministries depending on how badly the Old Democrats need them.

Once the deal has been hammered out and ministries allocated, the leader of the biggest party becomes Prime Minister and the new government runs the show. Basically, the new government does everything: sets the budget, tax rates, everything. All this is subject to Parliamentary veto, but Parliament gets little power to directly make policy. Basically, about all that Parliament can do is vote "no confidence" in the current government, which means that the government "falls" and new elections must be held. This won’t happen so long as the members of the majority coalition are happy. But if the coalition falls apart (as often happens), then the government falls and new elections wipe the slate clean and start over.

There are plenty of fine points: first-past-the-post systems for blocking tiny parties (which tend to make it really hard to put together governing coalitions); the amount of power Parliament has to investigate government activities; the power Parliament has to pass laws of its own; and so forth. I have described only the basic skeleton of a parliamentary system. (If you don’t want to call the representative body Parliament, you can call it a Diet, a Dag or Tag, an Assembly or just about anything else.)

2. Eliminate the role of for-profit corporations in political life
There is no reason why business should be able to influence politics in a democracy. After all, democracy is supposed to be rule by the people, not corporations. American politics is dominated by money, and most of the money comes from business, which in turn skews our politics in a pro-business direction. If businessmen want to influence elections, let them donate as much as they want as individuals. I would prefer a hands-off approach to political contributions -- so long as corporations are not allowed to sneak money into the system. If corporations are not allowed to vote, why should they be allowed to influence elections? The Constitution gives no rights to corporations.

3. Redefine the layers of government
Our current system breaks government down into four levels: federal, state, county, and municipality. Ideally, the division of power among these layers should be clean. In practice, they’re all mixed up. The Feds give money to every kind of government agency: state, county, municipality, water district, transit district, and so forth. This means that the federal government exercises considerable influence at every level of government. For example, Federal transportation funds are used to force states to follow Federal guidelines for road construction. This is mostly a good thing; you can drive anywhere in the country and instantly recognize the road signs and know how the traffic system works.

The reasoning behind the Federal-State division is utterly obsolete. When the Constitution was written, states were truly independent entities that had been defined by the King of England and empowered by special writ. They came together to fight the Revolution and then stuck together for mutual defense. But the federal government they created grew far beyond their intentions. The men who wrote the Constitution would hardly recognize our current political system.

Let’s start with a radical question: should we have ANY layers at all? Why couldn’t we give all power to the Federal government, and let it administer everything right down to the municipal level? There would simply be local agencies for dealing with local problems. Let’s go through the arguments for and against:

"Local problems need local solutions." This doesn’t cut much ice with me. The ugly truth is that America is now a homogenized country. If you move from Nebraska to Arizona, you’ll find the same roads, the same strip malls, the same fast food restaurants, live in a suburb just like your Nebraska home, work pretty much the same kind of job, pay pretty much the same kind of taxes, drive under the same basic rules of the road -- the list goes on and on. Can you think of ANY differences between states that require fundamentally different legislation? Sure, Nebraska has snow days at its schools and Arizona doesn’t -- but you don’t need an entire state-level government to address such differences. 200 years ago, states had serious socioeconomic differences; and the travel times between them were so great as to render a national government unresponsive to many local needs. But nowadays, states are socioeconomically homogenous, and the national government can often respond to local situations 
faster than the state government can. The brutal truth is, there aren’t any local problems anymore. All the policy problems you face in Peoria are faced by the people in Pocatello.

"I’m nervous about giving that much power to the federal government." Let’s differentiate between the power and the 
people who wield it. You have already given your local and state governments lots of power; I am not proposing any new powers over you, just moving those powers to the federal government.

"But if the federal government had all that power, it would be easier for ruthless politicians to take over the country." Um, ruthless politicians already run the country. Do you really think that your county supervisor is a more beneficent ruler than a federal officer? At least you can appeal to an ombudsman in a federal system; your county supervisor is pretty much immune unless you can nail them for breaking the law.

"But local politicians are more responsive to me."Oh, really? Do you know the name of your city council representative? Your county supervisor? Your sheriff? Do you know ANY of your municipal, county, and state elected officials? The odds are high that you don’t. So how can they be more responsive to you when they’re just as much strangers as any federal official? Indeed, the problem is really the other way around: it has been shown time and time again that local politicians are more corrupt than Federal officials. That’s because the Feds have plenty of oversight and accountability, but Boss Jones can get control of the city council and pretty much do as he pleases without fear of oversight. Local officials pull off stunts that a Fed would never even attempt.

"Your plan doesn’t include local representatives of any kind. If I can’t go to my Congressman to deal with an obdurate Federal bureaucracy, how can I cope with that juggernaut?" The American system conflates two very different jobs: ombudsman and legislator. The legislator writes and votes for and against laws. Ombudsmen take individual citizens as their clients and have the power to cut through the red tape. They can’t break the law, but they do know how to work the system.

So yes, I am recommending the elimination of all layers of government other than the federal government. I believe that the functions of state and local governments have already been deeply penetrated by the federal government, that this has happened for good reasons, and that it is time to dismiss with the arbitrary lines on the map that make all those redundant bureaucracies. I believe that we should have a strong ombudsman system with ombudsman at every level of administration. Such ombudsmen should have unrestricted powers to investigate government activities. The ombudsman’s office should be right in lobby of every government office.

That’s all!
These three changes are the only ones I would make were I king. Of course, they are profound changes that would require a completely new Constitution and a major upheaval in our political system. They are so revolutionary that they would never take place unless (until?) our current political system gets so much arteriosclerosis that it falls apart. It is true that there really is a lot of political hardening of the arteries, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the level needed to produce a revolution. So we’ll keep stumbling along until we finally reach that point.