Our conservative Constitution

In the 1940s, with the world embroiled in war, the conversation in economic circles turned to what would come afterwards.  With two major world wars in thirty years, whatever Europe was doing clearly wasn’t working.  What should humankind try next?  What might work better? William Beveridge, a British economist, chaired a committee that produced a report describing one possible future; the European social welfare state.  I’m not alone in calling it a ‘combination state’; a market economy, but with a very strong social safety net.  And some version of that combination state has become the European norm. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, South Korea; basically all the countries in the world that work pretty well, all have some version of the combination state. Basically, use this rule of thumb; if your daughter told you she was marrying someone from one of those countries, and she and her new husband were going to live there, you’d be fine with it.  Those kinds of countries.

The United States is pretty close to a combination state, but we’re not really one by these measures: we don’t have universal health care.  We don’t really subsidize higher education.  There are lots of family-friendly policies (mandatory maternity/paternity leave for new parents, mandated work days and vacations, generous retirement benefits) that all the countries listed above have, and that we don’t.  That’s why America is usually described as a more ‘conservative’ nation than the other successful countries in the world.

For example, Norway had a national election last September, and although Labor won the most seats in Parliament (Storting; literally ‘Big Thing’; I love Norwegian), a conservative/centrist coalition gained enough seats to win power.  But the Norwegian Conservative party (Høyre, or ‘Right’ in Norwegian), is only comparatively conservative; most Høyre members hold to policies that would put them on the left fringe of the Democrats here.

For example, in that election, Høyre ran on issues like improving Norway’s health care system, improving Norway’s hospitals, and better care for the elderly.  There’s a long waiting list, for example, for nursing home care–that was an issue in the campaign.  But nobody, on either side, even mentioned, oh, requiring families to pay for nursing home care, or requiring college students to pay tuition (they pay none, even if they go to college in some other country), or things like co-pays for doctor or hospital visits. No responsible politician in Norway could hope to win on such a radically conservative agenda. Erna Solberg is the new Prime Minister–she’s ‘Conservative,’ but is seen as a moderate, and is anyway hardly a polarizing figure.

So it’s interesting, isn’t it?  Why is it that all of Europe, basically, is some version of a combination state, but the US isn’t?  Why is stodgy, old, traditional Europe so much more liberal than the US?  The answer, I think, has to do with our Constitution.

The US Constitution essentially favors conservatives, and makes political life difficult for progressives.  When I say this, I don’t mean that the Constitution is built on a Christian foundation, or that it favors a market economy, or that God inspired our Constitution, and God’s a conservative.  I don’t mean any of that.  I mean it in this sense; the Constitution makes it easier to block legislation than the other forms of Democratic government we see on the world stage.

Most countries in the world have Parliamentary systems of government.  To take Norway, again; 8 political parties won seats in Storting.  That means that if you’re a politically engaged Norwegian, you can choose to support a political party pretty close to your views. You vote for your guy, and if he wins, you hope the party you favor can join the ruling coalition government. Supporting even a tiny party, like the Green party (with one seat in Storting), still makes sense–that one guy could join a coalition, and wield genuine power in a government.

But in America, the Republican party consists of pro-business people, religiously oriented social conservatives, Tea Party constitutionalists, internationally expansionist neo-cons, libertarians–it’s an unstable coalition.  Honestly, guys like Rand Paul should probably just be libertarians; people like Michelle Bachman should probably just be Tea Party candidates.  But Paul or Bachman can’t really leave the Republican party without diffusing its power.  That’s because we elect candidates, not parties.

So when a Parliamentary coalition government is formed, they really do get to rule.  They will always have a majority in Parliament; in fact, that’s the source of their power.  Most European parliaments are unicameral, or, if bicameral, one of the houses is constitutionally nugatory.  So in England, whoever has the most seats in the House of Commons rules.  The House of Lords has no say in governing; the Lords exist as a kind of super-advisory committee.  (Most Lords are really awesomely-successful people who just got Lorded; imagine having a governmental body with no power, but consisting of people like Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and John Elway, who could be put on committees and offer advice).

Anyway, that’s the secret.  Parliamentary government means that whoever wins an election gets to set and pass its agenda. It was inevitable that some election, hard-core progressives would win, and we’d get a social welfare state.  And once implemented, welfare states are hard to get rid of, because people really like them.  A lot.  So Erna Solberg, the new ‘Conservative’ Prime Minister of Norway can’t realistically run against having a national health service.  People like it too much.  Try to get rid of it, and you’re going to lose a vote of no confidence, leading to an election you’re going to lose.

But in America, the central Constitutional doctrine is separation of powers. The Framers were way too cynical about human nature to trust anyone with that kind of power.  In a Parliamentary government, the executive branch is inextricably linked to the legislative branch.  Here, they’re separated.  It’s difficult to get legislation passed.  Intentionally.

American government is, right now, almost comically inept, risibly incapable of governing.  The House of Representatives is so politically opposed to the policies of President Obama that they essentially won’t vote for anything he proposes.  We end up having these horrible, bruising fights over absolutely routine matters, like raising the debt ceiling, which simply means paying our nation’s bills.  The result is gridlock–nothing gets done.  I’m not saying that this is an outcome the Framers intended, or anticipated, but it’s not necessarily one they would have minded much.

This is why I say the Constitution is basically a conservative document.  Because isn’t the essence of conservatism a skepticism towards new ideas?  Progressives saying ‘hey, let’s try this!’  And conservatives saying ‘not so fast, there, bub.’  Conservatives want to study things out, think it through, carefully consider all the possible ramifications of any change in policy.  Conservatives are, by nature, cautious.

I see it, for example, in the current debate over marriage equality.  Liberals say ‘it’s not fair to deny an entire class of people something as basic and fundamental as marriage solely on the basis of fundamental biological differences.’  And conservatives are saying ‘marriage is the founding, central, crucial institution of society.  Let’s not rush into changing that something that fundamental.  Let’s slow down.’

And when it comes to federal legislation, our constitution makes it easier to block new ideas than it is to enact them. It gives a lot of power to those who want to say ‘wait.’  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I do think that a US combination state is inevitable.  It really does appear to be the favored form of government internationally.  I mean, mankind has tried the ‘insane paranoid dictator’ form of government–it didn’t work very well, and doesn’t work today, in North Korea.  We’ve tried the ‘maybe we don’t even need a government; let the strongest survive’ approach–it didn’t work well either, and doesn’t today, in Somalia.  We’ve repeatedly tried the ‘thugocratic laissez-faire, favoring one guy and his ten best pals’ approach, currently on display in Russia.  What works is democracy.  What works is free markets.  But also, what works, is a strong social safety net.  We can see that lots of places today, and we can see as well that it generally works pretty well, with some hiccups.  Maybe when we implement it, we’ll have cured the hiccups. If so, (and this is hard for me to say), we’ll have conservatives to thank.

Meanwhile, we can see that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does actually seem to bend towards social justice.  With that quote from Dr. King, let’s keep the good fight going. While respecting our conservative friends, urging us to carefully look before we leap.

One thought on “Our conservative Constitution

  1. Carrie Ann

    You need to pick up Borgen. It has been so much fun to watch the political scene from a Danish viewpoint.


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