Monday, December 30, 2013


Someone, I think that it may have been James Fallows, once noted that China does, after a fashion, have a form of democracy. It's rooted in the fact that with a population of over a billion people, the Chinese Communist Party could never hope to put down a widespread popular uprising. And so while they can get away with things that we in the United States find over-the-top, if they push it far enough that the torches and pitchforks come out, it's game over.

I think, to a different degree, the same is true here in the United States. People may not have high approval ratings for the government, but the number of people who are upset enough about the way things are going to actively protest against it is fairly small, and the group of people willing to take up arms is effectively zero.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.*
What's interesting about this is that it basically says that the Constitution is means to an end. And one of the things that perhaps we miss in our day-to-day lives is that most of the things that we do are means to various ends. The American public is, rightly or wrongly, notoriously disengaged from the politic processes that run the country. And while there is a lot of hand-wringing about this, among good-government types, the fact of the matter is that most people don't care because their ends that they are working towards don't require a better and more responsive government than the one we currently have. In other words, they don't see a need to get out the torches and pitchforks (or in a lot of cases, even simply vote) to achieve their ends.

While H. L. Mencken identified the whole aim of practical politics keeping the population fearful and thus desirous of political leadership, I would submit that a this should be expanded to include keeping the enough of the populace just affluent enough that they have something substantial to lose in the case of a sharp social upheaval and the maintenance of that affluence just easy enough that people don't have an incentive to question what needs to be done in service of that maintenance. The rest takes care of itself, and the abstract ideals that people often claim to support can be set aside. American government is, in effect, a kludge, and one that works just well enough to get by without stepping on enough toes that the organizational effort required to displace (let alone fix it) it becomes rational. And generally speaking, the incentives line up to keep things that way. And therefore, until those incentives change, little else will.

*If you were a child in the 1970s, you have to sing this part. But you can leave out "of the United States," since it's easier that way.

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