Republicorruption

“Many dreams come true, and some have silver linings. I live for my dream, and a pocketful of gold” – Robert Plant, from Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away

Do we live in a republic or a democracy? This is the question that 6th grade civics teachers love to drop on their unsuspecting students who may not be aware of the distinction. I imagine those same 6th graders are not reading this blog, so we’ll skip the introduction.

What interests me is the relative pros and cons of the different forms of popular governance and whether we are reaping those benefits. The descriptions of republics and democracies are varied and often overlap. So, we will describe the two forms in terms of their extremes and then consider the middle ground.

Democracy, at its extreme, is simple majority rule (direct democracy). To pass any law requires a majority vote of the population. There are several obvious downsides to this form of government. The first is simply logistical – holding a direct vote on every issue is infeasible for even modestly sized populations (or land masses for that matter). More sinister than this is the threat of “tyranny of the majority” or “mob rule”. Fifty percent plus one vote is all it takes to enact whatever legislation you wish. Rights of the citizens become utterly subject to the will of the majority. If the majority decides that people over six feet tall are to be taxed at a higher rate and have their left pinkie-toe amputated, then I’m just out of luck.

Even with this, there are benefits to democracy. First, policies are decided by the masses, so movements can be taken directly to the hearts and minds of the governed. Further, any prior policy decision can be undone by a single vote – there is no mass bureaucracy that can stand in the way when the majority has made its decision. The system can react quickly to failure.

For a Republic, we go to the other extreme. The rule and power of the majority is restricted, severely restricted, by the rights of the individual. Now, the benefits of this form are derived simply from its definition – individual rights reign supreme. Citizens of a republic need not worry (in a perfect world) about having their rights trampled or restricted.

The downside of the republic is the inflexibility or rigidity of the form. There are times when, for the very survival of the state, rights of individuals must be subverted (or rather, subverting those rights is the easiest path toward a successful resolution to the danger at hand). We see this frequently in times of war.

It is here that we note the obvious – America is not governed as either of these extreme definitions. That’s fine, no country is. The history of popular government is littered with various balances between the two.

Next we point to the not-so-obvious. The current state of American governance may not be better than either of these extremes. To the mathematician this is mildly unsettling. We’d like to see a smooth, monotonic transition between pros and cons of the different forms.

I submit that the degradation of form (examples to follow) extends from the slow subversion of “rights” with larger power grabs by the central government, coupled with an unwillingness to transition to direct democracy. The amalgam in the middle opens the way for a great deal of corruption.

At the root of this corruption is the focused and intent special interest group. These groups may be social, religious, or corporate in nature. What they hold in common is a desire to see certain policies or laws enacted, regardless of their impact on citizens’ rights. In a republic, these groups are stopped cold by the unalienable rights of the citizenry. In a democracy, they must make their case to the population as a whole. In our current form, a corruption of a republic, there are much easier ways to play the shell game.

Let’s consider some examples. A few years ago American auto manufacturer General Motors was headed toward bankruptcy. Lobbyists and union groups convinced Congress and the President to use public funding to reorganize GM, stripping bondholders of value and giving it to unions and other interests. Shortly thereafter congress passed the “cash for clunkers” program, using taxpayer funding to supplement car purchases, a clear benefit for GM. Now, in a republic this does not happen. The rights of the citizens, including the right to private property and due process, forbid the government from stripping bondholder rights and using taxpayer funds for private corporations. In a democracy, neither of these proposals comes close to passing a popular vote. But, we have neither and were stuck with this nonsense.

A similar argument holds for the TARP funding – a taxpayer ripoff to bailout bank bondholders. (Interesting that auto bondholders were destroyed by the same government that gave away the farm to save bank bondholders.) This is forbidden in a republic and doesn’t pass muster in a democracy. But, in a corruption-based government it’s exactly what we get.

On a more local level we could look to public sector unions. They have a strong lobbying capability and voting bloc – enough to sway elections. In a republic, these tactics would be subjected again to the right to private property. Seizing funds of one to give it away to another doesn’t fly. In a democracy they would need to convince the public to pay more (unnecessarily) for the same functions – not likely. But, we live in a corruption-based government, so this is what we get. The same argument could apply to any government give away to any group. Not permitted in republics, not passable in a democracy, perfectly acceptable in America.

The middle ground is not safe friends. The direction is toward fascism, with ever-greater ripoffs laid on the backs of the “free” citizens for the sake of special interests. When elections only determine which interests get the benefit, not whether things get better or worse, we have serious problems.

But I have hope for this country yet. I believe we can wake up and shake off the shackles of republicorruption.

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3 Responses to Republicorruption

  1. Eric says:

    Very interesting post. I am particularly intrigued by the notion of democracies and republics being endpoints on a continuum of structures of government. This may simply be my confusion over choice of definitions. But it seems to me that a republic is, as both you and James Madison point out, a solution to the logistical problem of scale, of implementing an actual democracy among, say, 300 million people… and in my opinion, a republic means little else other than that.

    More specifically, I am not sure to what extent a republic provides more explicit guarantee of individual rights than a democracy. Granted, a republic has more inertia, so it may take longer, but a majority can still eventually elect representatives willing to take your and my pinkie toes, and tax us for the cost of the procedure.

    I’m not saying that I think a democracy is a better form of government. I actually think that inherent inertia is a good thing, making it at least a little bit harder for the fanatics to do significant damage.

    • nomasir says:

      Agreed – I certainly borrowed heavily from the American notion of a republic. (Though, the Romans weren’t entirely averse to the idea of citizens’ rights, but they also had a pretty harsh caste system and defined citizenry a bit differently.) To this, I make two, hopefully short, counter points.

      First, we don’t actually need both endpoints for the main point of the post. We could not convince a majority of people to vote for these giveaway policies in a democracy. So, what we have is at least worse than direct democracy – in this one simple instance. Obviously one point of lesser performance does not mean we should switch to direct democracy – it has other weaknesses.

      The second point is that the nature of representative democracy necessarily implies adherence to citizens’ rights. It would be hard to get a majority to do something insane, like banish all white males over the age of 50 from the country. However, you could plausibly get 51% of a small elected representative body to do so (not likely given its current makeup). Or, for instance, a 51% majority of a representative democracy could abolish the right to vote and establish themselves as a collective dictatorship. Clearly there are protections for citizens’ rights to prevent this.

      Now, even if we don’t couch this as a “defense of rights” we must, at the very least, call it a “limitation of government power”. For instance, you don’t have the power to dissolve voting rights or establish yourselves as above the law. That sort of thing. To that end, there is a third, more subtle point regarding the American republic. Do we have such limitations of government power? You bet. The constitution dramatically limits federal government authority. All of these giveaways, and social programs, and the like are extra-constitutional; beyond the powers of the federal government. How do they get away with it? An activist supreme court decision which interpreted a small constitutional phrase “promote the common welfare” to be a blank check. That is, the federal government can do anything it wants as long as it can be couched in the realm of “promoting the common welfare.” If the feds say “we’re doing this for your good” then it’s fair game. This clearly, CLEARLY, runs afoul of the constitutional intent and the writings of the framers. But, it is where we are today, and it is why we see all of this nonsense.

      Now, you may well hold that a little more leeway is warranted that strict constructionism allows. To this end, we can always amend the constitution. But that takes a big voting hurdle, not just a court decision. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing the right and hard way. Make the case to the public. Get massive common support. Then pass the amendment.

  2. Pingback: Sovereign Elite Rent Seekers | Freedom at Bethsaida

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