November 24, 2002
FROM ZION TO COLUMBIA:
Hamilton, Madison & Jay in Jerusalem
: How do you say The Federalist in Hebrew? (Peter Berkowitz, 12/02/2002, Weekly Standard)
The immediate occasion for the conference was the publication of the first Hebrew translation of The Federalist. Both conference and translation are initiatives of the Shalem Center (disclosure: this magazine's editor sits on the center's board). Founded in Jerusalem eight years ago by a small group of enterprising intellectuals led by Yoram Hazony and Dan Polisar, late '80s Princeton graduates and then-recent immigrants to Israel, Shalem has in a short time grown into a respected and influential institution. It publishes a magazine in Hebrew (Techelet) and English (Azure) on Jewish politics and thought; it supports senior scholars from Israel and abroad (including Michael Oren, author of the New York Times bestseller Six Days of War); it takes strong stands on divisive public policy issues (such as the battle over the tendentious accounts some Israeli textbooks offer of the alleged injustice at the heart of the Zionist enterprise); and, last but not least, it is engaged in translating classics of political thought into Hebrew. The Federalist is only the latest on a list that includes Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. [...]
The speech by Ruth Gavison, bringing the final session to a close, was a highlight of the conference. Small and slight in build, fierce and dominant in argument, Gavison, a professor of law at Hebrew University and a founder of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, has been a prominent member of the Israeli Left for more than two decades. In recent years she has established herself as a leading critic of the left-liberal activism of the Israeli Supreme Court as well as an eloquent proponent of serious discussion of constitutional reform with various representatives of the Israeli Right about shared values and common goals. Her allies on the left have grown increasingly troubled. As in the United States, the sight of a liberal who respects the people and who embraces not merely the idea of diversity, but the reality of diversity, in particular political and intellectual diversity, can be very disconcerting for those we are generally accustomed to calling liberals. The spirit of Gavison's exemplary liberalism, which permeates her introduction to the Hebrew Federalist, was very much on display in her rousing speech to the conference.
Three lessons from her remarks--as it happens, pertinent in the U.S. context as well--stand out. First, democracy has weaknesses and disadvantages, and constitutions should be designed with a view to crafting arrangements, consistent with democracy, to counteract or mitigate those weaknesses. Second, government's first duty, which is the protection of individual rights, is not achieved only by a Bill of Rights. It is also, and perhaps primarily, achieved through artful institutional design, involving mechanisms for the channeling of self-interest such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and systems of representation. And finally, if they are going to be legitimate and effective, constitutions cannot be imposed from above, however elegantly designed, however much they may reflect what some band of professors believes the people would embrace were they to give the matter due consideration. Rather, as the record of 1787 and 1788 suggests, constitutions must be based on actual agreement, hammered out by flesh and blood representatives of the rival and conflicting groups that constitute political society, and ratified by the people.
What makes this particularly exciting is that, while Europe and Japan, which became democratic after us, have already fallen into precisely the kind of death spiral that conservatism predicted
, America has held up far better. This would tend to suggest that there is something fundamental to the American Republic and/or to American society, that is acting as a brake on democracy's worst tendencies. Some of the differences may just be structural, and easily recognizable, but others seem more likely to be subtle and for many people unpleasant to contemplate, particularly because it appears they may be moral and religious
. But whatever the case, it would seem to be essential for newer democracies that hope to have an "American" future rather than a "European" one to figure out what we've done right and to imitate it to the greatest extent possible.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2002 7:52 AM
America's stability may have something to do with the executive/legislative system set in a long-running two-party system with a winner-take-all format for four-year periods on the exeutive level.
Groups like the Greens and some Libertarians may feel the system shuts out competing ideas, but at the same time, it avoids the factionalism in government that nations like Germany, Japan and Israel have to endure. When elections are close, that lead the major party politicians to have to make concessions to the minor parties in order to form a working coalition, one that often lasts no further than the next major crisis and in the long run may be more trouble than it's worth.
In the U.S. system, if an idea from some minor party does resonate with the public, odds are it will be co-opted by the Republicans or Democrats. That's not a system that will please the Greens or Libertarians, but it does serve as something of a filter to the way government works in other countries, where for example the Greens in Germany get all of their ideas into play because Schroeder needs them in his coalition to stay in power.
Had the U.S. been under that system in 2000, Gore would have worked out a coalition with Nader and taken over as president -- of course, after 9/11 odds are the Gore government would have fallen and the Repubicans would have taken over the entire legislative and executive branches back then instead of three weeks ago, but in an evenly split nation, the parliamentary system can leave leaders walking on eggshells to preserve their majority. Under the U.S. system, no matter what Bush does, good or bad, he's in there until Jan. 20, 2001, which gives a focused president a chance to govern more forcefully and less with an eye on polls and legislative majorities (something Clinton could never bring himself to do, since high poll ratings were the Holy Grail of his White House).
Yet France has a President, with I believe a six year term, and they're a mess.
Don't forget Europe and Japan got flattened by WW2 which would make the security offered by social democracy a lot more appealing.
France's government set-up allows for a president of one party to serve alongside a prime minister of another, which was the case until earlier this year with Chirac and Jospin, when the Socalists cratered, finshing behind LePenn's ultra-nationalist party and Lionel had to take the first train out of Paris.
The PM there has more power than the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority leader do under divided government in the U.S., so power at the top can be more divded in France than here, though admittedly, it's often hard to tell the difference between the two main parties over there.
Britain and France's systems do benefit from basically having two major parties that don't need coalition help to govern on their own, which cuts down on the factionalism and deal-making for coalition support. But under the right (actually, the wrong) circumstances, that could change.
Agreed, but that's the point. Security and Liberty are ultimately enemies of one another. Why does America, almost uniquely, tilt toward liberty?
As a believer, I'd love to say that the reason our system works is religion, but it's not. You can't have a free society without belief (I don't want to argue about this--please go read what the Founders wrote about it), but you can have belief without a free society. What makes America different, and why people come here from the rest of the world, it that here the people grant power to the state and not the other way around. People come here to get out from under things; the people in Europe were content to put up with it. What is the biggest difference? It's the guns--the state does not have a monoploy on the means of force, a fact of tremendous spiritual significance.
What John said.
I agree with Lou about people-up power, not
about belief. Sorry, pal, I'm an atheist and I'm
just as interested in freedom as you are.
There is also a structural advantage that
Americans had: When they came to draw up
the national constitution, they had written
31 constitutions in the previous generation and
then had had to govern using them. The
framers knew how to get things done.
Very few, if any, 20th century constitutions
drew on U.S. practical experience, most
choosing a parliamentary scope, with the
problems that John identifies.
Some (Palau is one) even drew on the Polish
model, which was so free that everyone had a
veto and nothing got done.
Conservatives (at least the kind who fear
democracy) get bent out of shape about the
rickety, illogical shape of the U.S. government,
and leftists want to even everything up.
But it is the counteracting instabilities that
keep American government in the air.
The analogy is to flight. Planes are not designed
to operate as stable systems. If they try,
they crash. Rather, they fly as dynamic
systems, constantly corrected.
A good example is how third-party ideas are
over time adopted if practical by one or other,
and then, if they're really good, by both
parties. Recall that a national bank was a huge
political issue from the founding until 1913.
Now only a few kooks rail against the Fed.
If you can't have a free society without belief then you agree it's religion.
Speaking of kooks, Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek wrote a book called 'The Denationalisation of Money' arguing for abolition of central banks. As an economist myself, this is an issue that should return, because the advance of technology now likely makes the decentralized banking system that the U.S. used for most of its first century preferable to one with a central bank.
Also, Harry, the Fed was made possible by technology advances like the telephone that enabled real-time money transfers to occur across banks in different cities. It just wasn't feasible before about 1913.
Re Lou, of course you can have belief without religion, but the question is, can this belief stand up over generations against the pressures that will be brought to bear against it? Recall Dostoyevsky's claim that for those who don't believe in God anything is possible.
Murrray Rothbard wrote some large essay on the subject which is worth reading if you haven't already.
Here's a good one:
They that deny a God destroy man's nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a
base and ignoble creature.
Funny, the Bank of England operated with some
considerable success for a couple hundred
years with telephones. Even the First and
Second Banks of the U.S. were not financial
The problem of worthless fiat money became
acute after Jackson destroyed the bank.
I have no strong opinion on central banking,
except if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but the
original point -- it isn't a political issue any
more here -- is solid as a gold double eagle.
I think one other point about the American political system that helps maintain checks and balances and stability is the frequency of elections. In Europe, it's every 4 or 5 years unless the governments can't function properly. Here it's every two years.
The frequency of elections helps to reinforce the protections of legislative/executive separation. When Bill Clinton went nuts in 1993, we were able to elect a Republican congress in 1994 to protect ourselves.
Maybe an important factor was the Civil War which brought home to the North the importance and value of free enterprise and free labour vs the slave-dominated South.
That and also American pioneers were generally forced to rely on themselves and not the government for hand-outs.
Harry, the banks you refer to were not central banks, they were commercial banks operated by national governments. The disintegrated "banker's bank" structure developed later and depended on real-time financial transactions between the central bank and their client banks.
Concerning the Fed, the Europeans are now providing us with an interesting test case. They decided that a single currency and a central bank is one of the benefits of an unified economy, where I had always considered it one of the costs. That Germany is now suffering from the structure upon which they insisted is only the tasty frosting.