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October 12, 2006

Thank God for Our Antiquated Institutions
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I’ve decided to finally get through all of Sam Huntington’s classic work (before he went bonkers) – Political Order in Changing Societies. Here’s one passage that stands out not because it is particularly original, but because it conveys just how lucky we are to have the unique and somewhat antiquated institutional structure which the founding fathers devised for us (and which has proven surprisingly and fortunately resilient). In other words, if we were living in Britain (where there is no separation of powers) and Bush happened to speak in a British accent, we’d probably find ourselves much closer to tyranny than we currently are. 

The passion of the Founding Fathers for the divison of power, for setting ambition against ambition, for creating a constitution with a complicated system of balances exceeding that of any other is, of course, well known. Everything is bought at a price, however, and as many Englishmen have pointed out, one apparent price of the divison of power is governmental inefficiency. "The English consitution, in a word," [Walter] Bagehot argued, "is framed on the principle of choosing a single sovereign authority, and making it good: the American, upon the principle of having many sovereign authorities, and hoping that their multitude may atone for their inferiority." (p. 111)

God bless America.


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If Bush had the powers of a British PM, he might have had more power but he’d also probably have been removed by a ‘no confidence’ vote sometime after hurricane Katrina.

I recently attended a briefing by Tom Ricks, Post reporter and author of Fiasco. In addition to criticizing the administration, he laid much of the blame for Iraq on Congress abandoning its oversight role. Specifically, he said that they’d been acting in a historically unprecedented manner. During past wars, such as the civil war or WWII, single party control of the Presidency and Congress did not prevent tough hearings.

On the whole, our system has more checks and balances. However, when an entire branch has gone AWOL the system falls apart. I’m no comparative government expert, but I suspect that presently, the Brits are probably better insulated against tyranny because their Parliament still functions in a way that our Congress does not. Putting the Democrats in charge will help, but in the long term we need to restore Congress to its role as a check on the President regardless of his or her party.

Also, I would pay good money to see Prime Minister Bush face a question hour. Wouldn’t you?

Well, Labourite Tony Blair (or "Bliar" as I've seen on English bumper stickers--love it) hasn't been removed in spite of his relentless toadying to the neocons. But otherwise I agree with Greg.
So which is the better system, the powerful PM with a weak parliament or the supposed power-sharing president with a rubber-stamp congress and a political supreme court? Our governmental breakdown does cause one to look with new appreciation on the British system.
Bush belongs in SOME kind of dock, if not the World Court then a parliamentary one.

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