Which Is Best for Liberty: The Presidency or a Parliament?

 

indexIn the Claremont Review of Books, I review a recent book by my friend, Frank Buckley, of George Mason Law School. His provocative argument is that the U.S. Constitution harms liberty because of the Presidency. He argues that parliamentary systems turn out to be more protective of individual rights.

That doesn’t seem right to me. I argue in response that the greater threat to liberty lies in unrestrained in majority democracy, where 50.1 percent of the people can legislative in any way it wishes — which is what happens in a parliamentary system, where there is no independent executive to check the legislature. But Buckley claims that the measure of freedom show that nations that have parliamentary systems have greater economic and political freedom than the U.S.

What do Ricochet readers think?

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  1. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Neither.  The correct answer is referenda.  See Switzerland.

    BTW, please explain how England is more protective of personal rights than America is…  I’m sure he’s got an argument, but I’m not seeing it.

    • #1
  2. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    How’s gun ownership in the UK and Canada?

    Canada has an ongoing problem with the RCMP swooping in, confiscating and destroying guns during a western flood a while back. Up until the Harper government there was a national long gun registry, which shall surely return if Justin “Shiny Pony” Trudeau wins the next election.

    • #2
  3. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    I’ve been wondering that myself lately, listening to Hillsdale Dialogues with Hugh Hewitt and such. The biggest advantage the British parliamentary system has over ours is the deliberative to and fro between parliament and the PM. It’s very, very good to have the leadership openly have to defend its positions before the people.  Can you imagine Mr. Obama in that setting? Say, with Trey Gowdy in opposition?

    • #3
  4. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    EJHill:How’s gun ownership in the UK and Canada?

    I don’t think that’s relevant, for two reasons.

    First, the populaces of most parliamentarian countries don’t want legalized gun ownership. Even if they had a presidential system, those countries would never write a Constitution which protected the right to bear arms.

    Second, and more broadly, I don’t think individual rights such as freedom of religion, speech, gun ownership, etc., have much to do with our presidential system at all. Those rights are written into the Constitution via the Bill of Rights, and are enforced by the judiciary, neither of which is dependent on having a president.

    • #4
  5. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    John – I would suspect that parliamentary systems suit countries with histories of three or more political parties. In our bi-party system the chance for steamrolling would be higher. If a minority party quits a coalition governments collapse.

    • #5
  6. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    John Yoo:the greater threat to liberty lies in unrestrained in majority democracy, where 50.1 percent of the people can legislative in any way it wishes

    But look the reality in America:

    A president is elected de facto by popular vote. Even though our system supposedly provides checks and balances, over the last few decades every president has used the regulatory state to push through his agenda by fiat. Result: laws are still determined by 50.1% of the people, but through an opaque (and often illegal) process rather than a transparent one.

    • #6
  7. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    The irony of this whole story is that the Framers’ original vision was much more parliamentary than our current system: they intended for the president to be elected by the House of Representatives, similar to how prime ministers are elected by parliaments.

    Indeed, I think our founding fathers would be very perplexed at the fact that Representatives, Senators and the President are all elected by popular vote (while technically not a direct popular vote, our presidential elections have become the closest thing to it). There’s something weird about having three groups meant to antagonize each other yet all being appointed by the same masters.

    I don’t know if a parliamentary system is really better, but I do think the shift to popular elections for all three legislative institutions has been an unhealthy development.

    • #7
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Mendel – Canadian law on the right to bear arms is muddied. When Canada was charted as an independent country the enabling act guaranteed that Canadian citizens would continue to enjoy the same rights as Englishmen under the 1689 English Bill of Rights. That was where we got the right to bear arms in the first place.

    Since that was already enshrined in English common law I’m not sure Canadians thought they needed to include it in their constitution. They were wrong.

    • #8
  9. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    The Federalism point in the review strikes me as the most important.  England is a unitary system, and a fairly homogenous place -80% English.  Similarly with Germany and Japan.  They are also fairly small.  The US is neither.  When the system is working properly, the gridlock of the Separation of Powers should allow the states freedom to operate -and the states are more parliamentary than the federal level.  The problems besetting us now are that the Separation of Powers isn’t working because the parties have now completely circumvented it -willingly passing power to the Bureaucracy to lock their preferences into stone.  This is, regrettably, what De Tocqueville predicted would do us in.  We are approaching the point of the elected dictator, overriding both federalism and the separation of powers simultaneously, and no one has any desire to prevent it because they either expect it will be their elected dictator, or they’re resigned to the fact it’s coming and are simply hiding in the hope they’ll survive.  Or they’re blind.

    I don’t see a parliamentary system fixing that.

    • #9
  10. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Western Chauvinist:I’ve been wondering that myself lately, listening to Hillsdale Dialogues with Hugh Hewitt and such. The biggest advantage the British parliamentary system has over ours is the deliberative to and fro between parliament and the PM. It’s very, very good to have the leadership openly have to defend its positions before the people. Can you imagine Mr. Obama in that setting? Say, with Trey Gowdy in opposition?

    Question Time is a great thing.

    • #10
  11. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Madison had it right.  Competing factions and separation of powers are the best guarantor of rights and liberties.  Where our system has gone wrong is not in the shape of the three branches of the Federal government it is that the federal balance between the states and the central government has gotten out of whack.  The Federal government is doing way too many things that should have been left to the states.  Everything started to go wrong with the 16th and 17th amendments.

    • #11
  12. Caleb J. Jones Inactive
    Caleb J. Jones
    @CalebJJones

    Seems to me that John Yoo has it right. As some of the others have pointed out, the system as originally established, has been corrupted almost beyond recognition. And, the legislative branch has been too willing to cede power to the executive. If one branch of the gov’t isn’t willing to pull its share of the load, that creates a power vacuum into which either of the other two branches gladly will move, in most cases the executive. Congress has been too willing to cede power to the executive by writing vague laws “to be implemented” by the executive. The judicial branch basically surrendered to the executive during the FDR administration and it hasn’t really been willing/able to reassert itself fully since.

    • #12
  13. Caleb J. Jones Inactive
    Caleb J. Jones
    @CalebJJones

    anonymous:This brings to mind something we’ve discussed on the AMU/EAMU. If the U.S. is so confident in its of separation of powers and two-party system (which seems an inevitable consequence of a first-past-the-post electoral system), why is it that when the U.S. has been in a position to influence the constitutions of other countries (for example, Germany, Japan, Iraq, and Afghanistan), they end up using a European model with a parliamentary system and proportional representation?

    I genuinely don’t understand this. Perhaps a historian of the cold war might have some insights.

    One explanation I have read, specifically in regard to the post-war Japanese constitution, is that leftists from the State department were in charge of that exercise. Being leftists, they preferred the parliamentary system and imposed it on Japan. (It may have been in Bix’s Hirohito and the making of modern Japan OR maybe Dower’s Embracing Defeat… I no longer have the volumes at hand.)

    • #13
  14. Rick O'Shay in Texas Inactive
    Rick O'Shay in Texas
    @RickOSheainTexas

    Under the Parliamentary system Prime Minister faces questions directly from the opposition. Where would we be if the President had to face questions from Trey Gowdy? Where would we be if Bush had been forced to face Dem lies instead of just allowing the media to run with it?

    • #14
  15. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Member
    virgil15marlow@yahoo.com
    @Manny

    While I have never lived under a parlimentary system, I certainly prefer the presidency.  I see no reason to think that a chief executive restricts freedom.  And there are obvious advantages to a chief executive under urgent and emergency conditions.

    • #15
  16. Belt Inactive
    Belt
    @Belt

    I’ve heard a couple of interviews with Buckley, and read some reviews and commentary, including yours.  When I first heard of his thesis, I was skeptical, and I’ve only become more so.  Basically, I have two disagreements.

    First, I think he has a bias towards a system that ‘gets things done.’  He seems to place a lot of emphasis on the need for government to act on issues.  While the parliamentary system that he favors would do so, it doesn’t mean that it will act in a good way, towards good ends.  And even if it were roughly equally likely that it will act for good or ill (however you want to define that), it introduces instability into the country as the government swings from one pole to the other.

    Second, I think the underlying problem is not the precise form of government, but rather its scope and size, the demands of the electorate that grant it ever-increasing power, the unchecked growth of the bureaucracy, and the deliberate destruction of the separation of powers.  The character of the governed is at least as important as the nature of the government, and I think it’s trumped the brilliant system the Founders gave us.

    Int he end, I’m pretty sure Buckley’s thesis is provoking in parts, but essentially unmoored from reality.

    • #16
  17. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    “The character of the governed is at least as important as the nature of the government, and I think it’s trumped the brilliant system the Founders gave us.”

    This, a thousand times. We have a representative government in more than one way.

    At the end of the Constitutional convention Ben Franklin nailed it when he said, “…I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” We have become so corrupted, and have the despotic government we require at every level.

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Parliament.

    Up here in the Great White North, the Conservative government has been able to eliminate programs and repeal outdated legislation completely. This would not have been possible under the American “ratchet” system, where the best one can hope for is to delay the creation of new programs and entitlements rather than being able to repeal them.

    Yes, we had to endure Trudeau, but we’ve been able to repeal most of what Trudeau did, with the glaring exception of the constitutional changes he made which were patterned on his analysis of how the US Supreme Court is able to legislate from the bench.

    But, I’m biased…

    • #18
  19. Byron Horatio Inactive
    Byron Horatio
    @ByronHoratio

    When is the last time there has been a sufficient balance in the legislative and executive where the executive has “checked the excesses” of the legislative? It sounds wonderful in theory, but it presupposes an executive with a more restrained vision than his legislative counterparts. Grover Cleveland may have been the last such president.

    • #19
  20. Byron Horatio Inactive
    Byron Horatio
    @ByronHoratio

    The Czech Republic is a parliamentary system with American style gun rights.

    • #20
  21. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    The problem with our system is thatCongress has given power away to the Executive. If a POTUS were to say the following a lot of mischief would be undone:

    Congress cannot legislate away its power to legislate. Therefore, all regulations under the Executive are suspended until such time that Congress passes Legislation to enact them. In all instances, I will uphold explicit statutes as written, but I will instruct all departments and agencies to cease and desist from writing any new, or enforcing any existing regulations that are not actual laws.

    As Congress chooses to pass new, more explicit laws, I will act to enforce those. However, as President, I will use the veto to block any laws as I see fit to do so.

    Imagine that in a First Address to Congress. 4 years without regulations. I’d include, by the way, any unconstitutional thinks like the NLRB. Nowhere does the US Constitution give Congress the ability to create boards that answer to no one.

    • #21
  22. user_130720 Member
    user_130720
    @

    Want the answer?

    Watch the British version (original) of HOUSE OF CARDS and then the American NETFLIX version.
    Question answered. ;-)

    • #22
  23. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    “For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best.”

    – Alexander Pope

    I don’t entirely agree with Pope on this, but I really do think that liberty depends more on a citizenry which cares about it than it does on any particular way a state is organized.

    • #23
  24. user_130720 Member
    user_130720
    @

    Bryan G. Stephens: Nowhere does the US Constitution give Congress the ability to create boards that answer to no one.

    Yep. See: Hamburger: Is Administrative Law Unlawful?

    • #24
  25. user_740328 Inactive
    user_740328
    @SEnkey

    Salvatore Padula:“For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best.”

    – Alexander Pope

    I don’t entirely agree with Pope on this, but I really do think that liberty depends more on a citizenry which cares about it than it does on any particular way a state is organized.

    Agreed.

    • #25
  26. user_92524 Member
    user_92524
    @TonyMartyr

    It’s a straw-man, John – there are so many alternatives to the “50.1%” outcome in various different parliamentary systems.

    Australia’s Federal system (which I’m most familiar with) has a preferential voting system for the Lower (governing) house and proportional representation in state blocks in the upper (reviewing) house.  So it’s not 50.1 – combine that with compulsory voting, and what we get is (I think) a pretty good representation of what the electorate wants – warts and all.  That, of course, doesn’t mean that there are no problems – the upper house (the Senate) has in recent years had a mind to think of themselves as more important than they really are, and the fully proportional representation there gives the minor parties and special interests more power than they deserve, but there’s certainly no sense of “tyranny by the 50.1%”.

    New Zealand, with a fully proportional Hare-Clark voting system, after two terms of coalition conservative government, has just given them an overall majority (which most pundits were thinking was probably impossible in any circumstances) – and they are proper conservatives, too.

    • #26
  27. user_75648 Thatcher
    user_75648
    @JohnHendrix

    anonymous:This brings to mind something we’ve discussed on the AMU/EAMU. If the U.S. is so confident in its of separation of powers and two-party system (which seems an inevitable consequence of a first-past-the-post electoral system), why is it that when the U.S. has been in a position to influence the constitutions of other countries (for example, Germany, Japan, Iraq, and Afghanistan), they end up using a European model with a parliamentary system and proportional representation?

    I genuinely don’t understand this. Perhaps a historian of the cold war might have some insights.

    Excellent question!  I have noticed the same irony.

    • #27
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