Why the U.S. Constitution Works

Mencius Moldbug decries democracy and points to its many failures. Meanwhile the United States struggles to deploy democracy in Iraq, displacing millions in the process. The Ottoman Empire ruled the region with more success. Latin America continues to oscillate between revolution and reaction. Africa went rapidly from post colonial democracy to corrupt despotism and or civil war in most countries.

Cherry pick the right examples and Moldbug’s case seems ironclad. But then there are those notable exceptions, such as the United States, the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and surprisingly, one of the oldest governments. Our democratic republic is more stable than most modern monarchies.

Sure, we have our problems. Our crime is excessive, our prisons overflowing, and or debts piling high. We could be near the end of our golden age, but not if I can help it. Our problems have solutions, no reboot necessary.

The important question is: why are we so successful where so many other countries have failed in short order? Why do we merely get Roosevelts where others get juntas and Hitlers? Why is our Constitution so successful? Can we export this success elsewhere instead of wallowing in bloody and futile nation building exercises?

True, it may have nothing to do with our Constitution. It may be our Northern European heritage. The Scandinavians and Germanic tribes practiced democracy back in ancient times, when much of the civilized world worshipped god emperors. We may be carrying over habits from those times, and have institutions which survived the feudal era making democracy natural for us even as it is unnatural for many other cultures. But then again, Germany sure had a bumpy ride returning to democracy in the 20th Century. The Weimar Republic and the Nazi eras were none too pleasant.

Maybe it’s our extremely Christian roots. Many of the early colonists came to escape persecution and/or establish religious utopias. The Bible contains a law code suitable for anarchy, and America’s Founders were well-versed in the Bible – even those who were not Christians. With a culture well-versed and amenable to in an anarchy-friendly legal code, citizen policing, trials by jury, and amateur legislatures worked well. And when people get their public morals from an ancient book, leaders become accountable to outside powers. No more god emperors. That said, the Puritans had a few mishaps on the way to establishing successful democracy; the early Pilgrims were communists, after all.

Perhaps it was our frontier. With cheap land available out west to all brave enough to fight for it, ambitious members of the working class went west instead of becoming union rabble rousers or socialist revolutionaries. To this day, our more frontier oriented states feature major party politicians which more resemble libertarians; note Mike Gravel and Sarah Palin of Alaska. But I don’t think this is the whole story. Our settled states have most of the population, and our republic has yet to collapse.

Most democracies outside the U.S. are parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary democracies are intentionally unstable. Power flips over radically to whichever coalition musters a majority. Our constitution provides for more stable government. We have the benefits of gridlock: presidents and congresses of different parties. We have powerful courts which reflect the views of multiple past administrations; this filters the effects of political victories over time. We also have a strong civil service system – a stabilizing feature in addition to our constitution – which provides a check on the current chief executive.

The features above are appreciated by many, but they too are not the whole story. Part of the magic of our Constitution lies in the ugly bits: the bits leading to pork, gerrymandering, constituent service, and the two-party system. We have district based elections.

District based elections are the bane of third party politicians. Duverger’s Law states that with plurality-take-all district elections, only the top two candidates are worthy of consideration. Third parties thus get squeezed out. Libertarian Party chairman Bill Redpath has long called for proportional representation. This would allow the Libertarian Party some seats at the legislative tables. It would also give seats to socialists, communists and racists. Proportional representation is a dangerous idea. Adolph Hitler gained his foothold using proportional representation.

District elections keep our elections a bit dumb and uninteresting. They keep principled libertarians out of government. They are also a key to the success of our republic. District based plurality-take-all elections provide the following stabilizing features:

  1. They keep the wacky radicals out of Congress and the state houses. You have to be middle of the road enough to be in the mainstream of your district to get elected.
  2. They weaken the importance of political parties. “All politics is local” is a U.S. mantra. Politicians are more accountable to the people in their districts than the party machines.
  3. Gerrymandering produces safe districts. The resulting perpetual incumbents are relatively immune to the political tides of the moment. Each chamber of Congress has both its commons and its lords.
  4. Local accountability turns legislatures into ombudsmen as much as they are lawmakers. “Constituent service” keeps the civil service on its toes.

This combination of features produces legislatures which are reasonably stable from term to term and are able to function. A legislature fractured by radical factions can be so divided that its members refuse to work together productively. Increased executive power, by dictatorship or junta, is a frequent solution under these circumstances. The constraints of district elections tend to tame radical factions and make them more humane. To have influence, radicals must package their programs into manageable bites, no Great Leap Forwards allowed. They must learn to play nice with others, including moderates and remoras, and work within the squishy two-party infrastructure.

And so, when top-down technocracy was all the rage, and the Great Depression provided a convenient crisis, we suffered the Roosevelt Years. Bad, and borderline dictatorial, but the Constitution survived, albeit bruised and battered. Alas, the same factors which saved us from socialism during those dark years also prevent rapid recovery. The journey back to a limited government republic must be a long one. The debt is high and the entitlement obligations higher. There are no real tax cuts in our near future. Libertarians must embrace this reality and behave like grownups if they want to govern and get us out of this morass.

Our system is stable, but by no means perfect. While moderate parties are good, having only two parties is not. Neither existing party embraces the solutions we need, even in mushy moderate form. The system is now biased to badness, and some reform is called for. Either a new coalition needs to take over an existing major party, or we need a new major party. The latter is extremely difficult, but perhaps not impossible; two possible loopholes in Duverger’s Law present themselves.

But it may be even easier to fix the system than it is to get good people elected under the current system. The reform needed is very mainstream and understandable to the masses. It could be presented to service clubs and civics classes. Moreover, it could be embraced by peaceniks. The reform I contemplate may be effective elsewhere, even in those lands now resistant to stable democracy. Fix the flaws in democracy and nation-building works faster, and our troops can come home.

I’ll detail this important reform in my next post. For now, appreciate what we have and realize we can do better.

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The important question is:

The important question is: why are we so successful where so many other countries have failed in short order? Why do we merely get Roosevelts where others get juntas and Hitlers?

50 years before Roosevelt, America was a republic strongly rooted in classical liberalism. 50 years before Hitler, Germany was a militaristic despotism with domestic policies and a system of education designed for the explicit purpose of making the German people dependent on and subservient to an aristocratic ruling elite. It isn't exactly like comparing North Korea to South Korea.

And so, when top-down technocracy was all the rage, and the Great Depression provided a convenient crisis, we suffered the Roosevelt Years. Bad, and borderline dictatorial, but the Constitution survived, albeit bruised and battered.

This depends on your definition of "survived."

Re the Important Question

Germany was once more than Prussia. Germany had quite a mix of governments. Not sure the extent of Prussia had absorbed the rest of northern Germany by the 1880s. Too lazy to look it up.

The Constitution is definitely bruised and battered, as I say. But the basic form of government remains, and efforts to reverse the bad changes are worthwhile. Just remember that the 1880s were no utopia. Constitutional rights were rather limited to meaningless if you were black. The government was subsidizing the major industry of the day: railroads. And the classical gold standard wasn't all that stable; the Fed was created for a reason. It was the wrong solution, but it was a solution to some real problems.

Germany was once more than

Germany was once more than Prussia. Germany had quite a mix of governments. Not sure the extent of Prussia had absorbed the rest of northern Germany by the 1880s. Too lazy to look it up.

Germany was unified under the House of Hohenzollern in 1871, by which point most of the states that would constitute the German Empire had already been absorbed into the Prussian-controlled North German Confederation when it was founded in 1866. Prior to that, Prussia already encompassed more than half of what would become the Empire.

The Constitution is definitely bruised and battered, as I say. But the basic form of government remains, and efforts to reverse the bad changes are worthwhile.

Yes, the basic form of government remains. We have three branches of government, an elective bicameral legislature, Supreme Court, etc. We have also become a country where the idea of "enumerated powers" is an utter joke and it is taken for granted that anything not explicitly forbidden by the constitution, and sometimes even things that are, is a legitimate activity of the federal government. Growing food on your own land for private consumption is "interstate commerce." The government's right to take land for "public use" now explicitly encompasses things like seizing your home so a private developer can build a business there. The President can make what amount to declarations of war without congressional approval.

I could go on almost forever. The basic form of an organism can endure long after its death, if you've got a good embalmer or taxidermist.

Just remember that the 1880s were no utopia. Constitutional rights were rather limited to meaningless if you were black. The government was subsidizing the major industry of the day: railroads.

I certainly don't think it was a utopia- indeed, I think people tend to oversetimate the libertarianism of that era. My original point- the fact that the culture, ideological climate, and national government in 1880s America was wildly different from that of Germany at the same time- remains.

Maybe it has nothing to do with the constitution.

America "worked" because theoretically civilized could come here to work and get rich and forget old country hates. It worked as long as there were land and assets to steal from the Indian People, a place for anarchists to go to rape and steal and leave the civilized alone.

It stopped working as well after Lincoln' War when all the western land had been stolen and fenced, leaving no place for the outlaws to hide. They discovered that the best hiding place was a big city and after the real Christians invented Prohibition and gave the outlaws an honest manufacturing industry . . . .

Disadvantages, too

I think that you might be underplaying some of the disadvantages of first-past-the-post district-based elections.

1. They keep the wacky radicals out of Congress and the state houses. You have to be middle of the road enough to be in the mainstream of your district to get elected.

I worry that this may ignore the extent to which what counts as "mainstream" depends, at least in part, on what elected folks are saying. After all, the idea that, say, the House health care bill will establish death panels is simply a crazy claim. It just has zero basis in reality. And yet, it's a pretty mainstream view, particularly in safe Republican districts. Similarly, the view that Gramm-Leach-Bliley caused the financial crisis is equally crazy, and yet pretty mainstream among Democrats.

There's a strong feedback loop between voters and politicians. In an us-versus-them world, voters come to accept as gospel things that "their" side is telling them. I'm not sure that's a perfect recipe for moderation.

By contrast, allowing actual wacky people to get elected (which you're right to say is what the single transferable vote would probably do) is no guarantee of wacky results. Imagine trying to pass legislation when there are 5 parties competing. Wouldn't that end up requiring far more compromise? After all, a two-party system requires simply getting a narrow majority and then keeping everyone on board to pass legislation. (Witness the health care bill that is likely to pass on a party-line vote.)

I think that you can keep a lot of the features that you want (accountability, say) by implementing STV on a district-by-district basis. You're still accountable to a local group; politics is still local, and gerrymandering may still lead to some pretty stable districts. You'll get some wacky radicals, but they'll simply be stymied at the legislative rather than the electoral level. And you'll get a more representative cross-section of opinions.

Much, though, will turn on your goals. If your purpose is to have a stable country, then a not-particularly-representative democracy would be fine. But if you think that democracy is a goal in and of itself, then STV is really the way to go.

voting systems

I think democracy is a means to an end: not too bad government that kind of serves the people. Better government with democracy requires better people; that is, a population with better knowledge of good government. (I'll address this important point in a later post.)

I do want our government to be more democratic than currently. Libertarian views are under-represented and the current system has biases as mentioned by commenters here and by Moldbug. But I also want near term stability; the herd can panic, and outliers can be disruptive.

Next post I will pitch a voting system which allows exploring more than two directions of governance while keeping the outliers outside pitching their causes to the more moderate masses.

Which is it?

Libertarian views are under-represented and the current system has biases as mentioned by commenters here and by Moldbug. But I also want near term stability; the herd can panic, and outliers can be disruptive...Next post I will pitch a voting system which allows exploring more than two directions of governance while keeping the outliers outside pitching their causes to the more moderate masses.

You can keep outliers outside or you can have libertarian views represented in proportion to their numbers. I'm a little unclear on how one can accomplish both. As appealing as I might find them, I think that the views of the average DR reader are pretty much going to have to count as "outliers." Or, if they don't, then I'm not entirely clear on what it is that you want to keep outside. :-)

Some category like "vaguely libertarian-inclined" might actually be a group that has a decent number of members. But whether those members would agree on a single set of candidates is another story entirely.

Outliers

Yes, I expect DR readers to be mostly outliers. Unless you have Bond-villain technology, a large bloodthirsty and fanatic cadre, or represent a colonial power, you cannot rule as an outlier -- democracy or not. True libertarians must compromise themselves or operate indirectly to have effect. Since this is a somewhat anarchistic community, I'll focus on the latter option.

The point I am making is not that democracy is amenable to the libertarian ideal. I am saying that a democracy properly stabilized (as ours is mostly) is resistant to some of the nastier forms of authoritarianism. It is mediocre.

An improved voting system would increase representation by those pulling in the libertarian direction substantially. Moderate libertarians (or the vaguely libertarian inclined, depending on how you define the word "libertarian") are seriously underrepresented. Thus, government continues to grow.

I do no think any approximation to the libertarian ideal is possible in the U.S. as a whole is possible in the next 20 years. A gradual program of spending reduction and debt payment is, though doing even this is a major effort.

Moldbug's view of constitutional stability

You should point out that Moldbug does not believe that the US has been as stable as you presume.

According to Mr Moldbug, the US is on its 5th form of government: 1) British rule; 2) The government under the Articles of Confederation; 3) the Constitutional period that lasted until the Civil War; 4) the second Constitutional period (but a different constitution) that lasted until FDR; and 5) the current Constitutional period (yet again, a different constitution).

The definition of "stable" that you are using is a bit odd.

Moldbug's view

Moldbug's view is a bit odd. So is his thesis that Marxism and European welfare statism are outgrowths of U.S. protestantism. Methinks the opposite. We imported a significant amount of German philosophy and got a partial dose of the national socialism that was the rage.

Our government has evolved, but it still has siginificant continuity.

Red or Blue

Lenin...

It appears you simply took the blue pill and fell silently back to sleep in Wonderland. Congratulations, it was the right choice for you.

The other reason is the Constitution is pragmatically ignored

It works because it is ignored. 90 something percent of appeals to the Supreme Court are never heard. We are ruled by case law mostly on the state level.

"Maybe it’s our extremely

"Maybe it’s our extremely Christian roots. Many of the early colonists came to escape persecution and/or establish religious utopias. The Bible contains a law code suitable for anarchy, and America’s Founders were well-versed in the Bible – even those who were not Christians. With a culture well-versed and amenable to in an anarchy-friendly legal code, citizen policing, trials by jury, and amateur legislatures worked well. And when people get their public morals from an ancient book, leaders become accountable to outside powers. No more god emperors. That said, the Puritans had a few mishaps on the way to establishing successful democracy; the early Pilgrims were communists, after all."

The colonists that settled Mexico and the rest of Latin America were also Christians, but what they lacked was the Enlightenment.

roots

Mexico and Latin America were settled by Roman Catholic Christians, vs. Bible-thumping Christians. For the former, human representatives have higher authority than the Old Testament Law. Given how those human representatives were often second sons of the nobility, the Catholic Church has tended to be more friendly to earthly rulers vs. rule of law.

If Only…

From my gloss of this, the feel I'm getting is the same as that of MM's weaker articles: “Ah, but you see, if only we had true X”—where X in your case is unmolested, responsible democracy™, and in his case is the purity and efficiency of monarchy without any people of questionable mustache taste grabbing the helm. The problem I always see is that, yes, there are essentially no historical precedents for either of these pure, enlightened (and altogether preferable) outcomes, but the “it just wasn't done right—wasn't pure enough” sentiments just grate on me aesthetically.

The pessimist's feeling about all of the absurd obfuscation and thwarting of the spirit of republican government (which would better reflect pure democracy than the weirdness we have now) is…so what? It grinds things to a standstill. That may be the best outcome considering the behemoth we presently have. I'll enjoy the ride in relative comfort until the machine poops out—as for my grand-descendents, if any, they just lucked into more interesting times, as they say.