Ron Paul is wonderful. He is the best thing to happen in American politics in my lifetime. I will vote for Dr. Paul. I think anyone eligible should do likewise.
But I have some questions for my fellow Paulistas.
Suppose Ron Paul is elected President. What makes you think that President Paul can fix the US Federal Government?
What makes you think that any President can fix the US Federal Government?
What makes you think that the US Federal Government can be fixed at all?
And if you don’t think it can be fixed, what do you hope to achieve by voting in its elections?
Obviously, it all depends what you mean by “fix.” But obviously, if you support Ron Paul, you think said institution, which down on the Potomac oft assumes the snappy name of USG—not to be confused with U.S. Gypsum, maker of fine Sheetrock—is in desperate need of an extreme makeover.
When Barry Obama talks about “change,” he’s talking about a whole new brand of lipstick, a deep restoring facial and maybe even a few collagen shots. With Dr. Paul, the bone saw is a given. We’re probably looking at a full maxillary reconstruction, a few rounds of chemo, and perhaps a silver nose, like Tycho Brahe’s. Assuming all goes well, our new Old Republic, meticulously recreated from 200-year-old dental records, will resemble the present USG about as much as the latter looks like U.S. Gypsum.
All the better, you say. If your problem is an invasive sphenoid tumor, your solution is not blush and mascara. Our beloved Republic is sick. Deeply sick. She needs the procedure. And in Dr. Paul, the man, the hour and the rongeur have met.
But have they?
At this point the soothing, Grímaesque voice of the moderate mainstream libertarian may be heard, suggesting that Dr. Paul is unelectable. Ergo, it will not help to vote for Dr. Paul, because Dr. Paul will not be elected, and your precious vote will be wasted. Rather, if you want to work for real change, you should work within the system.
Of course, there are only so many desks at the Cato Institute to go around. But if you make your small voice heard, maybe there will be more. Who says libertarians can’t have their own Beltway patronage machine? Uncle Sam beams down benevolently on friend and foe alike. As in Orwell’s classic, the two are never far from common ground.
Needless to say, here at UR we have no truck with these shills—who remind me most of the type of house dissident, like Georgi Arbatov, that flourished so in the later Soviet period. But yes, if I had to bet, I would bet that Ron Paul will not be elected in 2008. I don’t think he will even win the Republican nomination.
But would I, realistically, rule it out? Fashion is fickle. Even intellectual fashion. And in a democracy, intellectual fashion rules. The age of viral politics is upon us. Is all that stands between Dr. Paul and the White House the right YouTube spot or two? Who the hell knows. Frankly, kids these days baffle me. And even if Dr. Paul doesn’t win this year, there will be other years and other Ron Pauls—as Todd Seavey points out.
(I’m not even going to start on this Nazi crap. I refer you to my post on the subject. Anyone who starts playing the Kevin Bacon game with Ron Paul and Hitler, or anyone and Hitler, is required to submit to the same experiment with Stalin and Mao, and is specifically enjoined from using the term “McCarthyism” for so long as they may live. You fuckers. You really don’t have any shame, do you?)
So, again: even if Ron Paul—or someone like him, in 2012 or 2016 or 2020—is elected, will he be able to fix USG?
Dr. Paul has described his program very eloquently and straightforwardly. He wants to restore the Constitution of 1789. Or at least this is how he describes it, although probably a better match for the actual Paul platform would be the Constitution of 1889. But no matter. Next to the present situation, the difference is small.
Let’s assume our goal is to achieve this result. We would like to convert USG into something which at least bears some vague resemblance to the structure described in the Constitution of 1789, plus of course its duly ratified amendments to the present date, interpreted according to their original public meaning.
Obviously, no one person can achieve this goal. We, the set of people who would prefer this state of affairs to the present state of affairs, will have to act collectively. The question is: is voting for Ron Paul, or someone like him, an effective collective strategy for producing this result—assuming we have sufficient votes to elect Dr. Paul as President?
Actually, this is not a question for me. I know the answer. At least, I think I know the answer. Perhaps I am wrong, but if so I feel quite confident in my error.
And so my actual question is about you—my fellow Ron Paul supporters. Are you voting for—and even better, donating to—the Paul campaign because you seriously believe that, if Dr. Paul is elected, he will actually be able to carry out his extreme-makeover bone-saw program?
If so, let me put it as gently as possible. You have no idea what you’re up against.
But why should you believe me? Perhaps I am just another enemy of freedom. Surely there are many such, and perhaps I am one. So let’s start by looking at what we can agree on.
Since we are Ron Paul supporters, we agree that USG is not, in fact, the organization described by the Constitution of 1789. You have all heard Dr. Paul’s spiel. I see no need to repeat it.
In other words, USG operates under an unwritten constitution. To Americans, this sounds paradoxical, sacrilegious, or both. In fact it is perfectly normal.
Under an unwritten constitution, there is one sovereign legislative institution which holds the ultimate power of government, and whose authority cannot be legally disobeyed. The law is whatever this body says the law is. In the UK, this institution is Parliament. In the US, it is the Supreme Court.
USG’s unwritten constitution consists of a series of Supreme Court precedents, many of which date to the 1930s—Footnote Four is perhaps the best example. These are simply laws expressed as judicial decisions. Generally they are very vague and broad. Then Congress writes its own laws within these boundaries. Generally these are quite vague and broad. Then the various agencies and other arms of USG write regulations within the boundaries defined by Congress. Generally these are quite detailed and specific. And this is how the sausage is made. If you don’t like it, you can, of course, petition the Supreme Court. If this isn’t legislative sovereignty, what is?
Of course, USG is peculiar in having a written Constitution to go with its unwritten one. This has required our rulers to bend their decrees sinuously around the text of this ancient document, an exercise which at least serves to remind us of Mr. Swift’s Tale of a Tub. As for the claim that Americans are free whereas Britons live in chains, because we have a written Constitution and they are subject to their rulers’ every passing whim, I will have to respectfully disagree. I have never lived in Britain, but I gather the main difference is that they drive on the other side of the road.
Written constitutions were an experiment. The data are in. The experiment has failed. If Dr. Paul would prefer USG to return to the Constitutional interpretation of 1789, or 1889, or 1926, or whenever, he of course is free to say so. And I agree. Certainly, compared to the USG we have today, the structure of 1789 strikes me as quite appealing.
But why should we assume that, if Dr. Paul managed to return the US to the Constitution of 1789, it would stay that way? We once had a Constitution of 1789. Then stuff happened. And now we don’t. Does this sound like a success to you?
Let’s call this the first crack in the “convince everyone to vote for Ron Paul” strategy for fixing USG. We are still assuming that President Paul can perform the surgery. But will the wound stay closed? And will it heal properly? Does the Constitution of 1789 protect us at all against the possibility that the tumor will just grow back? Perhaps quite a bit faster than it took to grow in the first place?
What we’re questioning here is the commonly held, but thoroughly fallacious, concept of limited government. I agree that limited government is desirable. I see no reason at all to believe that it is implementable. Note the curious use of the passive voice in this construction. How can a sovereign authority limit its own power? If it decides to change its mind and take the power back, who exactly will stop it?
For me, 200mpg carburetors, penis enlargement pills, and written constitutions which limit the power of the State are all in the same category. I think they would be great to have. I will believe that they exist when I not only see them working, but understand how it is that they can possibly work. I recognize that both these tests are very difficult. If you want to start by passing just one, my inbox is always open.
One sad effect of this mania for government-limiting constitutions is that it has obscured the previous meaning of the word constitution, which is actually much more useful. In normal 18th-century English, the constitution of a government (or any other institution) just meant its persistent organizational structure. The term was not prescriptive, but descriptive.
For example, John Adams’ Defence of the Constitutions of the United States—well worth a read, by the way—uses the word in this good old descriptive sense. An actual defense of the constitution of the present USG would strain the powers of Lucifer, let alone John Adams. But I would still find it quite interesting to read. Of course, you would need the constitution first.
For example, our written, prescriptive Constitution says nothing at all about the press, except of course that it shall be free—whatever that means. But is it really possible to construct a descriptive constitution of USG without mentioning the official press? The Times and the Post alone are institutions at least as influential and durable as many formal government agencies. Their powers—such as the right to publish leaks—are thoroughly embedded in both law and custom. If they are not even mentioned in the constitution, how descriptive can it be?
And when we ask ourselves what President Paul can do to fix USG, which document should we consult? The written Constitution of 1789 (plus amendments), or the descriptive constitution of 2008? Unfortunately, the latter does not exist, but it is our only option. If the Constitution of 1789 determined the answer, would we need a President Paul?
Therefore, let’s consider the powers of the President, in the actual USG as it actually exists.
Sometimes I get the impression that many voters actually believe that the President is in some sense “the leader of his country.” As though he was Adolf Hitler, or something. If you are operating under this illusion, it is probably too much for me to dispel, but I will try anyway.
Under the actual constitution of the actual USG as it actually exists today, the President is a relatively minor official whose duties are primarily ceremonial. The office is not yet utterly impotent, like the British monarchy. But give it a century or two.
Suppose the product of a Presidential election actually was “the leader of his country.” While the term “country” in political discourse is spectacularly meretricious, oscillating between (a) a partition of the planet’s surface, (b) a set of humans or at least hominids, and (c) a sovereign corporation or “government” which exercises sovereign power over (a) and (b), clearly the concept of a “leader” makes no sense in the first context, is too scary for words in the second, and can be understood only in the third.
Thus a “leader” of USG would be a corporate executive, i.e., a CEO. This sounds like we are on the right track, because we know there is some association between the President and something called the “executive branch.” Perhaps, if Dr. Paul was elected President, we could think of him as the CEO of USG?
Not a chance. We have slipped away from our actual descriptive constitution, and instead find ourselves back in high-school civics class, reciting pablum.
A CEO of a normal private organization (company, nonprofit, etc.) controls four aspects of the company’s operations: budget, policy, structure, and personnel. He or she sets the distribution of funds between units of the institution; tells its employees what to do and how to do it; configures lower-level management structures; and can hire and fire individuals at will.
Forget Ron Paul for a moment. Imagine if we elected not Dr. Paul, but Steve Jobs, as President of the US. He wouldn’t take the job, but imagine if he did.
President Jobs would find himself in a rather unaccustomed position. He could not reallocate funds between agencies, or even between departments, or even between programs. He could not change any organizational structure. He could not tell anyone what to do. He could not fire, promote, or demote any of his employees. What could he do? Look dignified and come across well on TV.
And indeed, this is basically the task of USG’s so-called “President.” His most important function is to pretend to be in charge. And this is the one function in which the entire executive branch, plus of course the White House proper, will enthusiastically assist him.
For a good look at what George W. Bush actually does, I find this page invaluable. If you are anything like me, your eyes will immediately be drawn to the Executive Order of October 20, 2007: “Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations.”
This is a fine example of the petty whims by which Chimpy Bushitler, notorious fascist and fanatical angler, rules our nation. Bushitler and his notorious, Goeringlike henchman, Dick McDick, when they are not torturing nuns, spend all their time out on the Chesapeake, fishing for striped bass, red drum, and other brackish, white-fleshed piscids. So Bushitler and McDick, spitting in the face of our economically vital seafood industry, have taken striped bass and red drum off America’s dinner table, reserving these delicious fish for themselves and their well-heeled sportfishing cronies. Just another day in the Republican reign of terror, kids.
Right. What actually happened? Why did this pearl drop from the President’s pen? Because someone put it in front of him, and he signed it.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I come from a civil-service family. Horrible as it may seem, I was raised and educated on your tax dollars. And if there is one modern production which everyone who I have ever met who had ever been involved in government considers an accurate portrayal of the actual thing as it actually is, it is, of course, Yes Minister. (If like me you are allergic to canned laughter, the scripts are available as a book, which is perfectly readable. But see below.)
The one mystery about YM for me was how the people who wrote it found out. Surely it is not possible, even at the BBC, to be both a senior civil servant and a TV screenwriter. Since, as Lao-Tzu put it, those who talk don’t know and those who know don’t talk, the existence of this show, isolated example though it is, struck me as implausible. Yet there it was.
As with so many of my childhood conundrums, the Internet has resolved this for me. The principal source for YM is the posthumously-published diaries of Richard Crossman, who was housing minister in the ’60s under Harold Wilson. (I can only shudder at the concrete horrors for which he must be responsible—at least, nominally responsible.) As a glance at the first page of his diary will confirm, Crossman simply is Jim Hacker. Other personalities are also quite recognizable.
My edition (abridged, and 750 pages) begins with this entry:
Thursday, October 22nd I was appointed Minister of Housing on Saturday, October 17th, 1964. Now it is only the 22nd but, oh dear, it seems a long, long time. It also seems as though I had transferred myself completely to this new life as a Cabinet Minister. In a way it’s just the same as I had expected and predicted. The room in which I sit is the same in which I saw Nye Bevan for almost the first time when he was Minister of Health, and already I realize the tremendous effort it requires not to be taken over by the Civil Service. My Minister’s room is like a padded cell, and in certain ways I am like a person who is suddenly certified a lunatic and put safely into this great, vast room, cut off from real life and surrounded by male and female trained nurses and attendants. When I am in a good mood they occasionally allow an ordinary human being to come and visit me; but they make sure that I behave right, and that the other person behaves right; and they know how to handle me. Of course, they don’t behave quite like nurses because the Civil Service is profoundly deferential—’Yes, Minister! No, Minister! If you wish it, Minister!’ and combined with this there is a constant preoccupation to ensure that the Minister does what is correct. The Private Secretary’s job is to make sure that when the Minister comes into Whitehall he doesn’t let the side or himself down and behaves in accordance with the requirements of the institution.
It’s also profoundly true that one has only to do absolutely nothing whatsoever in order to be floated forward on the stream. I have forgotten what day it was—indeed, the whole of my life in the last four days has merged into one, curious, single day—when I turned to my Private Secretary, George Moseley, and said, ‘Now, you must teach me how to handle all this correspondence.’ And he sat opposite me with his owlish eyes and said to me, ‘Well, Minister, you see there are three ways of handling it. A letter can either be answered by you personally, in your own handwriting; or we can draft a personal reply for you to sign; or, if the letter is not worth your answering personally, we can draft an official answer.’ ‘What’s an official answer?’ I asked. ‘Well, it says the Minister has received your letter and then the Department replies. Anyway, we’ll draft all three variants,’ said Mr Moseley, ‘and if you just tell us which you want…’ ‘How do I do that?’ I asked. ‘Well, you put all your in-tray into your out-tray,’ he said, ‘and if you put it in without a mark on it then we deal with it and you need never see it again.’
This is the default existence of every politician and political appointee in the modern Western system of government. They simply empty their inboxes into their outboxes. The civil service, which by definition is permanent and cannot be touched by anyone who is contaminated by the deadly stain of “politics,” takes care of the rest. As long as you believe in democratic centrism, this system makes perfect sense.
Of course, life is only easy politicians who are aligned with the civil service. Learning that the inspiration for Jim Hacker MP was a hard-line Old Laborite makes perfect sense to me—the left is always, in every case, the party of the institutional civil service. Crossman’s interactions with his “nurses” are comical because they are basically on the same side. If he decides to stop trying to swim and just float, he is unlikely to be horrified by the results. If he manages to flail around and actually get something done, they are unlikely to be horrified.
There are no Ministers or Private Secretaries in DC. Crossman’s opposite number in Washington, especially Washington today, would be surrounded by a small platoon of so-called “sched Cs,” known to the punters as “political appointees.” There are a couple thousand of these jobs, which are listed in a wonderful little volume called the Plum Book. From the Beltway’s viewpoint, the primary purpose of your vote this November is to decide who shall consume these plums, “so sweet / and so cold.”
My mother was a GS-15 at DoE, working on budget and policy for renewable energy, in the Clinton administration. The other day I asked her about the sched Cs. “They get very nice offices,” she said. “And they can do pretty much whatever they want. They’re encouraged to find something and work on it.” A legion of little Jim Hackers. Here in America, everything comes in a bigger box.
Of course, the politicians have another option. They can try to fight. Sometimes this is done by the so-called “Republicans” among them. Perhaps you have seen stories in the press that indicate that some elected mannequin or other is trying to “politicize” the operations of some responsible and professional arm of USG. This indicates that someone is struggling. Of course, the classic example of an American politician who really went to war with the civil service was old Tailgunner Joe, and we all know what happened to him.
The basic strategy of the civil servant, when attacked by a politician or political appointee, is to make his attacker or the attacker’s political sponsor look bad in the press. Since politicians cannot be elected without the cooperation of the press, this strategy always works. Since the press is effectively part of the civil service (if the news desks at the Post, the Times, and CNN were reorganized into a Department of Journalism, perhaps not unlike the BBC, the lives of reporters would hardly change at all), this game is always “on.”
(I seem to recall a case recently in which a government employee was penalized for disclosing confidential information to the press. What do you think? Was he a career civil servant, or a sched C? No prizes to the winner.)
The issue is not exactly new. Here is Carlyle, from his Latter-Day Pamphlet #3 (1850):
A mighty question indeed! Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. That we firmly settle; Zero, all shivering with rapture and with terror, mounts into the high saddle; cramps himself on, with knees, heels, hands and feet; and the horse gallops–whither it lists. That the Right Honorable Zero should attempt controlling the horse–Alas, alas, he, sticking on with beak and claws, is too happy if the horse will only gallop any-whither, and not throw him. Measure, polity, plan or scheme of public good or evil, is not in the head of Felicissimus; except, if he could but devise it, some measure that would please his horse for the moment, and encourage him to go with softer paces, godward or devilward as it might be, and save Felicissimus’s leather, which is fast wearing. This is what we call a Government in England, for nearly two centuries now.
The Parvuli and Felicissimi of Carlyle’s time were giants next to the absurd nonentities who are trying to keep themselves on the horse today. And now it is more like four centuries. Everything else is pretty much the same, though.
So what do you think would happen to Ron Paul if he tries to stay on Carlyle’s horse? I’m afraid there are exactly two possibilities. I believe Dr. Paul is an honorable man, so we need only consider the first, which is that he will fight the system and actually try to downsize DC.
Of course, beyond his ability to block Congressional legislation (a courtesy Senate rules grant to every single Senator—people in DC who can stop things from happening are a dime a dozen), his power to nominate Supreme Court justices (who must still be confirmed by the Senate; and note also that Republican Presidents chose seven out of the last four conservative Justices), and his nominal command of the armed forces (whom he can at least order to stop whatever they are doing right now and come home; but so can Barack Obama), President Paul will have no power whatsoever.
But don’t worry. He will still have the power to make a fool of himself—at least as portrayed in the eyes of the press. His popularity will descend into the single digits. The result will be that Americans will consider libertarianism “discredited” for at least the next twenty years. Except for the same kinds of diehards who support him now, everyone who voted for Ron Paul in 2008 will realize, by 2012, that they were swept up in a wave of craziness, they had no idea what they were thinking, and they will certainly never think it again.
In other words, the problem with believing in Dr. Paul is that Dr. Paul is a candidate in a democratic election. To vote for him and believe you are doing something meaningful and important, it is necessary to believe not just in one thing—Ron Paul—but in two: Ron Paul and contemporary American democracy.
Obviously, when Paulistas talk about the press and its vicious vendetta against Dr. Paul, we can see that they have no illusions about their enemies. Their illusion is strictly confined to their friends, or those they imagine to be their friends. They huddle round the belief that the American electorate will come to its senses in a great flash of political light, and that once they come to their senses they will remain there. This Damascus experience will be triggered simply by the realization that America is a libertarian country, was founded as such, and has remained as such deep in the American heart.
Excuse my French, but this is crap. Americans are like everyone else. They believe what they’re told to believe. They respond to superior authority. For the last 75 years, they have been told that the State is their mother and father. Or possibly both. And now, they deploy the official “we” with gay abandon. Even I have a tough time removing this malignant pronoun from my tongue, and I do try. Americans simply cannot imagine life except in the warm arms of their official universal uberparent.
If you’re trying to save the old libertarian America, you’ve arrived on the scene a little late. Electing Ron Paul is like showing up at an autopsy with a live human liver. Yes, it’s true—the patient did die of liver failure. But that was a week ago. I suppose it can’t hurt to try and put the thing in, but I really doubt it will do any good.
Anthony Howard, the editor of my Crossman edition, describes Crossman’s struggle as a Fabian who also happened to believe in democracy. One might as well be a Catholic who also happened to believe in anal sex, and the permanent cognitive dissonance is characteristic:
The most familiar charge brought against Crossman even while he lived was that of ‘inconsistency’. Yet in one area, from the days when he was a young Oxford don, he was as constant as the Northern Star. His first, and favourite, book Plato Today wrestles with the problem of to what degree British parliamentary democracy is a sham, a fraud or a hoax: and it was a question that Crossman continued to tussle with until the day he died. It made him a highly unusual, not to say unorthodox, politician (his fellow practitioners of the craft being more generally noted for conveying complacency rather than betraying disquiet about a system that at least had had the merit of recognizing their own talents). Crossman, however, as well as possessing ‘the bump of irreverence’ that he was much given to boasting about, had throughout his career a passionate—and at times inconvenient—commitment to the notion of making democracy actually work. His haunting doubt—and this is as apparent in his last public lecture as in his first book—was that in some way the British electorate was being fobbed off with what Plato called ‘the noble lie’: in other words that the British voter, while encouraged to believe that he was part of a self-governing democracy, was in effect—through the device of so-called ‘representative institutions’—enduring government by oligarchy. The guilty secret at the heart of the British governmental system, Crossman came increasingly to believe, was that it was deliberately designed not to give ordinary people their heads but rather to tame the demon of democracy before it did too much damage.
Of course, as regular readers of UR are aware, the demon is most definitely a demon. Taming it is the most important function of modern governments. There was a time in American history when the President was actually the CEO of the executive branch, more or less. At least, he controlled personnel. This was called the spoils system. It cannot be said to have worked—in any sense of the word. And limiting it to what is now the Plum Book was the great achievement of the reformers of the 1880s.
So we have established the following facts:
- Ron Paul is unelectable (being a Nazi and all).
- If Ron Paul is elected, the civil-service oligarchy will crush him like a bug.
- The only thing worse than civil-service oligarchy is actual democracy.
What is the alternative? Is there any alternative? Or are we all just doomed? Tune in next week for the stunning, yet obvious, answer.