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Once and Future King

Frank Buckley was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, and now seems like an appropriate time to post my review.

Buckley argues persuasively — and surprisingly — that the Founders intended to establish a semi-parliamentary form of government in Philadelphia in 1787. But the rise of democracy, especially the popular election of the president, empowered the executive and led by the 1830s to a new form of government: separation-of-powers presidentialism. Most political scientists still perceive the U.S. system as one of extreme checks and balances, but Buckley argues that we have now progressed to yet another constitutional order, marked by executive dominance, the “elective monarchy” that the Founders feared so much. The impetus for this change has been the rise of a vast regulatory apparatus: “Modernity, in the form of the regulatory state, is the enemy of the separation of powers and diffuse power, and insists on one-man rule” (p. 6).

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, they first dealt with a “Virginia Plan” that had the president elected by Congress, the Senate chosen by the House from states’ nominees, and no executive veto. The plan was clearly parliamentary. The changes that occurred, to an electoral college process for the President, to an executive veto, and to state legislative selection of the Senate, were largely the product of compromises between states’-rights and nationalist factions at the Convention. The Framers did not anticipate direct popular election of the President, and in fact they thought that in most presidential election years, no candidate would win a majority, throwing the choice to states’ House of Representatives delegations. Some delegates claimed that a directly elected President would be a dangerous seed of demagogic monarchy.

F.H. Buckley

F.H. Buckley

In the 19th century, the progress of democracy caused the British and Canadian constitutions to cross paths with the American one. In the U.S., the electoral college became toothless, and Presidents were effectively directly elected by the people. In Britain and Canada, the monarch and the upper house lost legitimacy as nondemocratic bodies, and electoral reform in the U.K.’s House of Commons gave it democratic legitimacy and the upper hand in any battles among the branches. By the time Canada adopted its institutions under the British North America Act of 1867, they were consciously copying a fused legislative-executive, parliamentary system that had emerged in Great Britain, what Walter Bagehot referred to as “the efficient secret” of the British constitution. While the U.S. now featured strong separation of powers, Britain and Canada concentrated power in the Prime Minister.

Today, political scientists still teach that presidents are less powerful than prime ministers, because their legislative role is weak. The U.S. system has more veto players, and as a result policy change is slower.

Buckley acknowledges the logic of the traditional political science approach, but his story doesn’t end there. (more…)

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The Cato Institute has conducted a new poll of Americans’ attitudes toward federalism. Apparently Americans have become much more favorable to federalism and decentralization over the past 40 years.

The Cato Institute commissioned YouGov for the poll. They asked respondents questions about which level of government should have primary control over each issue area, using the exact same wording from a Harris poll conducted in 1973. This method allowed them to see how Americans’ attitudes have evolved over the past 40 years. On 10 out of 11 issues, Americans were more favorable to state or local control in 2013 than they had been in 1973 (the bars in this graph represent the percentage of Americans favoring primarily federal control over that issue):

cato poll

A majority of Americans still want primarily federal decision-making over national defense, Social Security, and cancer research. Two of those three seem to make a great deal of sense: cancer research is a global collective good, and national defense, by definition, is a national collective good. “Prison reform” and “drug reform” are the two issues on which Americans’ attitudes have moved most significantly toward decentralization. A large majority of Americans now think housing, transportation, education, welfare, prison reform, health insurance, and drug reform, in that order, should be primarily state and local issues. Only on education have Americans become more centralist, and that change is so small as to lie within the margin of error.

Another compilation of surveys suggests that a majority of Americans also want primarily federal decision-making over immigration, stem-cell research legality, protecting the border, protecting civil rights, protecting civil liberties, abortion laws, creationism in public schools, and food safety, in descending order. Most Americans also think paving roads, providing job training, law enforcement, running courts, providing pre-K to low-income children, unemployment, gay marriage, and gun control should be primarily state and local issues.

These results are consistent with those of other surveys, which have tested Americans’ views on particular issues. A 2012 CBS News poll found that 69% of Americans preferred that the states handle marijuana policy, while only 27% preferred that the federal government handle it.

What’s interesting is that on all these issues on which the study reports a partisan breakdown, even drug laws, Democrats are more in favor of federal control than are Republicans. Decentralization has emerged as a very starkly partisan wedge issue.

Growing support for decentralization in the U.S. does not necessarily mean that decentralization is a good idea or that it will happen, of course. As my review of Daniel Treisman’s recent book acknowledges, decentralization can have its pitfalls. Yet within the American context of largely market-preserving federalism, greater decentralization on many of these issues will (more…)

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Since the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish National Party has seen its membership treble and its poll ratings climb. This boost to pro-independence forces after their referendum failure departs from the script established in previous referendums on autonomy or independence. After the failed 1979 referendum on devolution (due to a turnout requirement – the measure got a majority of votes), the SNP fell back in the polls. After the successful 1997 referendum, the SNP gained in the polls, even though devolution was a Labour-implemented project. After the 1980 and 1995 failed referenda, the Parti Quebecois declined a bit in the polls.

So what’s going on? The biggest reason for the SNP’s gains may be that “Yes” and even some “No” voters in the referendum want to make sure that the Westminster parties follow through on their pledges for even greater devolution. Alex Salmond once said, “It’s only SNP votes that concentrate the minds of Labour.”

To a point, the logic makes sense. The British parties are contesting for power at the center, and party leaders are unlikely to devolve power away from themselves if they can at all help it. A credible secession threat is useful for eliciting concessions.

At the same time, though, there has to be some (more…)

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Vox Populi

This week we celebrated Constitution Day, by among other things, watching Congress authorize funding for a war that is not a war, and allowing it to be waged on the basis of a 2001 use-of-force resolution that authorized military actions against parties involved with the 9/11 attacks (conveniently, it did not have an expiration date).

Every year, it seems, there are poll results released on Constitution Day that suggest that the majority may not even know that a constitution exists (or if it does, what it might say). A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that:

While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.

With respect to the Congress—which, we are told repeatedly, is held in remarkably low esteem by the public:

Asked which party has the most members in the House of Representatives, 38 percent said they knew the Republicans are the majority, but 17 percent responded the Democrats, and 44 percent reported that they did not know (up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

Asked which party controls the Senate, 38 percent correctly said the Democrats, 20 percent said the Republicans, and 42 percent said they did not know (also up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

(more…)

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A few takeaways from the 55-45% victory for No in the Scottish independence referendum:

  1. The polls overestimated support for independence, just as in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Secession from a well-established democracy is extremely difficult due to voters’ risk-aversion and status quo bias.
  2. Scotland’s right to decide elicited salutary promises of decentralization from the British government. My book found that countries with legal secession saw more decentralization than countries without, and countries with legal secession never recentralized power in the post-World War 2 era, according to the measure of regional autonomy I used.
  3. While Westminster is likely to follow through on some additional powers for Scotland, they are not likely to approach anything like “devolution max.” For one thing, the Barnett formula will continue, suggesting the Scottish government’s budget will remain heavily dependent on transfers. For another, significant powers for Scotland will require wholesale constitutional reform, particularly to deal with the West Lothian Question, and there are many obstacles to a solution to that problem. Finally, the scale of No’s victory will reduce the urgency for British leaders to get something done. I will be very much surprised if a bill is produced to give Scotland autonomy equivalent to that enjoyed by, say, New Hampshire, let alone the Isle of Man.
  4. There’s going to be a lot of ignorant commentary about what this means for Catalonia. It means very little. Catalonia will proceed toward its own vote on independence. Secessionism isn’t contagious across borders, nor is declining secessionism. If anything, the No camp’s victory might persuade the Spanish government to allow a Catalan vote — but I wouldn’t count on it.

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International relations scholar William Ruger has a nice review of Barry Posen’s book Restraint in The American Conservative that is well worth checking out. Posen’s book is an attempt to sketch out a hard-nosed, moderately noninterventionist grand strategy for the United States. Excerpts:

Restraint, Posen’s alternative to liberal hegemony, is developed in the second chapter. He begins with a discussion of U.S. security interests—which include “sovereignty, safety, territorial integrity, and power position”—and then carefully considers potential threats and how to meet them. Primary among these would be “the rise of a continental hegemon” that upsets the “Eurasian” balance of power; nuclear weapons, especially in the hands of terrorists; and “terrorist organizations that have global ambitions.”

[…]

Posen proceeds to define what restraint would look like in the various regions. In Europe, he believes it is “past time to realize the dividends” of our Cold War victory. This means the U.S. can withdraw its forces, transfer NATO-related institutions to the European Union, and rework NATO itself—or even let it lapse.

His analysis identifies East Asia as the “most problematical region” in which to implement restraint, especially with China rising, and he believes that the U.S. has an interest in maintaining a regional balance of power. Yet Posen is not worried about China becoming as big a threat as the Soviets were, and he argues that a Cold War-style approach is unnecessary. Instead, the U.S. should “encourage its allies to assume more responsibility for their own defense,” while maintaining a security-assistance relationship with states like Japan.

In the Middle East, Posen argues that the U.S. should reduce its “salience” in the region in general and in the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular. This means going “offshore” while maintaining an absolute minimum land presence to keep the oil flowing and prevent any single state from dominating the region. It means the U.S. stays out of the region’s civil wars and focuses on naval power in the Gulf. In the case of Israel, Posen thinks the U.S. should “move deliberately” in reducing its subsidy of Israeli policies that are often not in our interests. To him, this means going back to the America’s pre-1967 Arab-Israeli War position, in which Israel received less military assistance and had to fund its own arms purchases.

[…]

Posen’s insight into the destabilizing effect of rapid change in international politics shows in his preference for a slow, deliberate transition away from liberal hegemony. But one might be concerned that the U.S.—with an open political system responsive to domestic interest groups—will not be able to stay the course. Given the realities of American politics, it may then be better to err on the side of speed in moving towards restraint. Either way, for restraint to succeed, it will take a serious commitment by a broad enough swath of the foreign-policy elite to see it through without backsliding. This is going to require educating a new generation of thinkers about the perils of liberal hegemony and the virtues of strategic restraint. The battle of ideas will be critical, and Restraint is a major salvo in that war.

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As part of a new paper, I’ve been doing research on decentralization in Aceh, Indonesia. Bringing to a conclusion an approximately 20-year insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesian government came together in a spirit of comity following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami and signed a peace deal giving the region ample new autonomy. Or so the usual story goes.

Here’s the reality. GAM came to terms with the Indonesian government because a brutal military offensive, paired with the imposition of martial law, had reduced their numbers significantly. Still, giving up their dream of independence for Aceh was a bitter pill. In the end, they agreed to the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding, which provided for the laying down of rebel weapons and new autonomy for Aceh.

That Memorandum of Understanding was never implemented in full. In particular, two provisions – the ability of Aceh to enact primary legislation without central government veto and the ability of Aceh to veto Indonesian treaties and other laws under certain circumstances, were not included in the final bill passed by the Indonesian legislature. In addition:

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and dozens of NGOs complain that the new law falls short of the autonomy provisions in the 2005 accord and allows considerable interference by the central government:

Central government powers: Article 11 stipulates that the central government sets the norms, standards and procedures and also monitors all affairs of the Aceh regional administration.

Control over natural resources: Aceh is to retain 70 percent of revenues from its natural resources. But Article 160 stipulates that the management of oil and gas resources in Aceh will be done jointly by the provincial administration and the central government. This is a departure from earlier pledges by Indonesian lawmakers that the Acehnese administration could manage its own resources.

Role of the Indonesian military: The peace accord stipulated that the Indonesian military would be stationed in Aceh only for national defense and would not participate in provincial affairs. But Article 193 of the law gives the army powers within the province.

Human rights: Perpetrators of human rights violations will likely escape justice. An ad-hoc tribunal (Article 215) will only hear cases that occur after its establishment, rather than having retroactive powers.

Aceh even lacks the ability to levy its own taxes, apart from a trivial “alms” tax for poor relief. Thus, Aceh’s autonomy is far less than that enjoyed by, say, Rhode Island. The only new autonomy Aceh received in the peace deal was the right to form local political parties. Otherwise, the main provision was to transfer significant hydrocarbon revenues to the province. With one hand, the Indonesian government double-crossed the former rebels and took away their ability to go their own way on economic policy, and with the other, they bought them off — but of course, that bribe comes with an implicit threat: behave or else we take it back.

How did the Indonesian government get away with the double-cross? Simple: (more…)

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