The American Realm vs The British Republic

My old friend, Jesse Norman, is an MP in the British parliament and noted something odd in the recent war debate in the Commons:

During the past decade or two, a convention has started to develop that, except in an emergency, major foreign policy interventions must be pre-approved by a vote in Parliament. The idea springs from honourable motives and it is understandable given the present climate of distrust in politics, but in my judgment it is nevertheless a serious mistake … It is a basic purpose of Parliament —above all, of this Chamber—to hold the Government to account for their actions. It is for the Government, with all their advantages of preparation, information, advice and timeliness, to act, and it is then for this Chamber to scrutinise that action.

If Parliament itself authorises such action in advance, what then? It gives up part of its power of scrutiny; it binds Members in their own minds, rather than allowing them the opportunity to assess each Government decision on its own merits and circumstances; and instead of being forced to explain and justify their actions, Ministers can always take final refuge in saying, “Well, you authorised it.” Thus, far from strengthening Parliament, it weakens it and the Government: it weakens the dynamic tension between the two sides from which proper accountability and effective policy must derive.

In the British constitutional system, Jesse is surely right. He reminds us that when Margaret Thatcher PresidencyKingrecalled Parliament for an emergency session before the launch of the Falklands war, the motion before the House was simply: “That this House do now adjourn.” But what makes this so striking is how the American republic, meanwhile, has turned into the British one. It was long understood as a vital part of the American constitution that declarations of war had to come from the Congress and not the president – precisely to avoid the dangers of a pseudo-monarch using war to bolster his own standing, to project strength or to act as some kind of protector of the realm. None of that really applies any more, the president launches war after war (while calling them counter-terror operations), and the Congress’s only remaining role is to provide the funds. This is precisely what the Founders feared; and it is precisely what is now routine. In a stark review of a new book on presidentialism by F H Buckley, The Once And Future King: The Rise Of Crown Government In America, Gene Healy sees how far the rot has gone:

We’re hardly “the freest country in the world.” As Buckley points out, his native Canada beats the United States handily on most cross-country comparisons of political and economic liberty. In the latest edition of the Cato Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World rankings, for example, we’re an unexceptional 17th. Meanwhile, as Buckley points out, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” ranks us as the 19th healthiest democracy in the world, “behind a group of mostly parliamentary countries, and not very far ahead of the ‘flawed democracies.’”

There’s a lesson there. While “an American is apt to think that his Constitution uniquely protects liberty,” the truth “is almost exactly the reverse.” In a series of regressions using Freedom House’s international rankings, Buckley finds that “presidentialism is significantly and strongly correlated with less political freedom.”

In this, Buckley builds on the work of the late political scientist Juan Linz, who in a pioneering 1990 article, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” argued that presidential systems encourage cults of personality, foster instability, and are especially bad for developing countries.

Subsequent studies have bolstered Linz’s insights, showing that presidential systems are more prone to corruption than parliamentary systems, more likely to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, and more likely to degenerate into autocracies. The Once and Future King puts it succinctly: “there are a good many more presidents-for-life than prime-ministers-for-life.” Maybe what’s exceptional about the United States is that for more than 200 years we’ve “remained free while yet presidential.”

Relatively free, that is. The American presidency, with its vast regulatory and national security powers, is, Buckley argues, rapidly degenerating into the “elective monarchy” that George Mason warned about at the Philadelphia Convention. Despite their parliamentary systems, our cousins in the Anglosphere also suffer from creeping “Crown Government”-“political power has been centralized in the executive branch of government in America, Britain, and Canada, like a virus that attacks different people, with different constitutions, in different countries at the same time,” he writes.

But we’ve got it worse, thanks in large part to a system that makes us particularly susceptible to one-man rule. As Buckley sees it, “presidentialism fosters the rise of Crown government” in several distinct ways. Among them: It encourages executive messianism by making the head of government the head of state; it insulates the head of government from legislative accountability; and it makes him far harder to remove. On each of these points, The Once and Future King makes a compelling-and compellingly readable-case.