Good Friday Morning, and I hope you’re aware that the latest in absurd masking technology is to wear pantyhose over whatever mask you’ve chosen to ensure a tighter fit. I’m not joking. That’s a genuine article, citing actual scientific research with factual conclusions. If I have to know these absurdities, then so do you.
Also, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, caught maskless at the NFC Championship game in LA says that he held his breath during selfie pictures with famous people. Yes, this is a real news story. No, I am not exagerrating.
This week, I’m taking a stroll through how to examine a government. Do you look at the function or the design? I’ll draw out those distinctions and show how that impacts how we think—links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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Good economic reports, or a prelude to more? – Conservative Institute
Biden, the Fed, inflation, and recession roulette – Conservative Institute
CNN – the worldwide leader in dysfunction – Conservative Institute
Hardware vs Software. Design vs Function. How do you study government?
One of the hobbies I picked up last year is watch collecting. I typically wore a watch emblazoned with an orange Tennessee Power-T as a kid. At some point in college, I picked up a $10 watch that I wore occasionally but primarily used to keep on me when it came time for exams. But this is the first time in my life I’ve gotten into watch collecting as an actual thing and seeing what other collectors have and value.
As a practical item, all watches perform the same function. The design choices and mechanical differences are what make them fun. And let me tell you, there is an endless variety of watches and designs utilized. I joined a company called Watchgang, which is a subscription service. They often work with small-batch watch companies to send out limited-run editions and run giveaways for the big brands like Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, and Seiko.
The functionality is the same; the designs are different. An automatic, quartz, eco-drive, solar, wind-up, or simple battery-powered watch all do the same thing. But how they get there is different, and the design used to convey that can change. A similar principle is true of cars. There’s an endless array of car designs out there. Still, we’ve settled on a few basic models with design variations on top of those models. We have cars, trucks, SUVs, and some hybrid models between those different things and an endless array of designs.
In the history of political philosophy, governments were perceived similarly. All governments perform the same function: an overriding form of governance that applies to all people. How we judge those governments can depend on what we define as good and just, which is why you get so much early discussion in Plato’s Republic of theories of justice and the rest. But once you’ve nailed down definitions, the question becomes: what are the methods of achieving that kind of government, and how do you ensure you keep that government?
George Washington, in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette during the constitutional debates in 1788 (which Europe watched with interest), laid out the goals of the US system of government:
With regard to the two great points (the pivots on which the whole machine must move) my Creed is simply:
1st That the general Government is not invested with more Powers than are indispensably necessary to perform [the] functions of a good Government; and, consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of Power delegated to it.
2ly That these Powers (as the appointment of all Rulers will forever arise from, and, at short stated intervals, recur to the free suffrage of the People) are so distributed among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, into which the general Government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form; so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.
Note the second part of Washington’s point. He’s laying out a very classical notion of government, which he and the Founders got from reading Polybius, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu: balance of powers was about ensuring a government did not devolve into a lesser form. It’s not checking one branch against the other: it’s about providing the survivability of the governmental structure.
Early Greek thought divided governments into three types: democracies, aristocracies, and monarchies. Think of these like your sedans, trucks, and SUVs. Polybius was one of the first historians. He believed that each of these kinds of governments could decay over time into harmful forms, giving us six types of governments. Democracies devolved to mob rule, aristocracies to oligarchies, and monarchies into tyranny.
The ancient world knew that no government or country lasted forever, and none of them lasted in the same governmental form. Eventually, everything collapsed. The way to prevent this collapse was to note the weaknesses and shore up defenses ahead of time. The Greeks believed collapse was inevitable and part of anacyclosis’s timeless cycle.
The theory from the ancient world through the 18th century was that you needed to have a hybrid form of government. If you created a form of government in which all forms of government and all classes of people were empowered, it would be more difficult for a government to devolve into a bad state.
Classically, political thinkers saw two types of people: the nobles and the masses. Each group wanted to rule over the other for their own reasons. Hybrid regimes split up power between the two groups.
Enter the US Constitution. The reason the Founders were hyper-focused on governmental structure in writing the Constitution and why the Bill of Rights came second is because they were trying to solve this problem. You cannot have rights in a country without a functioning government. The French got this wrong. In the French Revolution, they focused on establishing rights first but never settled on a working form of government. That instability led to the rise of Napoleon, the monarch/tyrant rising from the mob mania from the Revolution.
What made the American system unique is that it took the British notions of a divided government and combined that with social contract theory to create the American system. The United States is unique in this regard; it’s one of the only rationally constructed governments in history.
But what makes this also unique is that you can overlay designs on top of things. Or, if using the car analogy, you can drive a car in many different ways. If you’ve got a hybrid vehicle, you can drive it like a Nascar driver, off-road it, or be a Sunday driver.
To that end, the design choice in the American system for the last century has been liberal democratic capitalism. However, you don’t necessarily have to use that design choice on the hybrid government. Take the United Kingdom in the 16th – 19th centuries. The UK shifted from a monarchy to a mixed government where Parliament gained power from the crown over time. The UK was essentially a mercantile economy powered by its Navy over this time.
Liberal democratic capitalism is great and has created the modern world. But it is different from a hybrid regime described by the Founders. And we should also note you can have a monarchy or an aristocracy that runs on liberal capitalism. The American system might be the ideal setup for both — but that is not required. Further, the creative destruction of capitalism can, over time, eat away at the power structures of some of the social institutions that support a hybrid government.
I’m trying to convey this: when people say that our institutions are flawed or in need of repair in the United States, it’s best to figure out: are they arguing about the hardware or software? The United States has the hardware of a hybrid regime. We have elements of a monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy all within us, running at all times. The software running on top of that is capitalism and liberalism.
It may sound like I’m splitting hairs here, but I think it matters.
The eternal question for conservatives is this: what are you trying to conserve. For instance, more libertarian-leaning conservatives — Jonah Goldberg is a great example here — are very focused on preserving the software aspect. They see liberalism and capitalism as things needing to be maintained. But frequently, you can read the works of these types, and they’re essentially calling for an aristocracy to run liberalism and capitalism. They see the masses as being unhelpful in maintaining good governance.
The new illiberal right wants to use political power to further their own cultural desires. This makes them sound more monarchic, but in the end, they want a form of an aristocracy, too, and are focused on different ends.
My focus is less on the software than the hardware. A hybrid government is difficult to maintain, and once lost, you introduce the easy downfall into bad governments. It is harder to achieve corrupting power in a mixed government than in a democracy, republic, aristocracy, or monarchy. It’s not impossible, but it’s much more difficult because of the checks.
Julius Caesar ended the Roman Republic in one march across the Rubicon. Caesar won the people over, pointed out the flaws of the Republic, and took power. The Senate, filled with corruption and people who only wanted the status quo, was ill-equipped to defeat populism. Once Caeser marched, the Republic was over. We warn people of the Ides of March, and Rome’s Senators indeed killed Caesar in an attempt to restore the Republic. But they not only failed, but they also ensured that Octavian, the heir to Caesar, would end the Republic for good.
You cannot assassinate your way back to a good form of government. Caesar may have died, but the Rubicon was already crossed, and the Roman Republic was all but buried.
My preference for conserving things is focusing on what makes that hybrid government work, noting what could eat away at it, and working to keep the balance. History points to the long list of bad things that ensue when governments devolve into their harmful form.
The decline of countries, empires, and governments is not inevitable. Sometimes, circumstances can exist that prevent a society from continuing. But absent that, it is not unavoidable that decline occurs. It is a choice. The critical factor to all decline is poor governance. One of my primary concerns is that we are beset by bad governance. Trump and the GOP-led Congress got little done. The same is true of Biden and his Congress.
Congress has not fulfilled its essential duty in passing an actual budget in years. Bad governance has consequences. One of those consequences is that the wild swings we’re experiencing in elections, where parties are swept in and out of power, denotes a fundamental lack of trust in either party to govern. If the US Government were functioning correctly, the swings would be absent or muted compared to now.
Other institutions are filling the vacuums left by Congress. The administrative state is growing, expanding the federal bureaucracy into everyone’s lives. Executive orders, by extension, gain more power. The judiciary is forced to handle political disputes. Congress is focused on punditry instead of governance. Our leaders somehow believe hashtag activism is authentic leadership.
Establishing good governance requires leadership focused on ensuring the government is functioning correctly. Conservatives want to cut all kinds of agencies. But if you do that without providing legislative answers, you exacerbate the bad governance issues even more.
Fixing that leadership problem is the number one issue facing the United States. And good leadership means, at least partially, ensuring a proper balance in government.
Links of the week
Russia Isn’t a Dead Petrostate, and Putin Isn’t Going Anywhere – Meghan L. O’Sullivan and Jason Bordoff, NYT
Biden blocked the first Black woman from the Supreme Court – Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post
Leaked document reveals Biden’s Afghan failures – Jonathan Swan, Axios
CNN Probe Eyes Jeff Zucker’s Ties to Andrew Cuomo: The ongoing investigation, which exposed an affair that led to Zucker’s abrupt resignation yesterday, has expanded to include possible improprieties during Cuomo’s tenure as governor of New York – Tatiana Siegel, Rolling Stone
When the Pope Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie, That’s Ahmari: From neoconservatism to integralist cosplay to active worship of China and Russia, the ‘post-liberal’ right has had a giddy five years – James Kirchick, Tablet Magazine
Why Can’t Europe Handle The Ukraine Crisis? – Robert Kelly, 1945
Biden’s chief of staff leaked Breyer retirement to ‘limited’ group, Durbin says – Washington Examiner
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Whoopi Goldberg Says Order 66 ‘Wasn’t About The Jedi’ – Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!