Sunday, March 02, 2003

I've mentioned before that Americans harbor an alarmingly deep distrust of democracy; Eugene Volokh has now provided another piece of evidence for the prosecution. A while ago, he asked the readers of his blog ("The Volokh Conspiracy") to suggest the one Constitutional amendment they would most like to see enacted. Among the most popular, apparently, was repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment--the one that provided for direct election of members of the Senate. (Previously, Senators had been appointed by state legislatures.) Jacob Levy, another (possibly temporary) Volokh Conspirator, apparently also finds the repeal idea attractive.

Now, it's a fair bet that Volokh's readers (and fellow writers) disproportionately share his libertarian ideology and deep affinity for the law. And as I've mentioned before, both traits correlate strongly with a willingness to surrender popular sovereignty to appointed tribunes with unchecked, absolute power, in the rather naive hope that this power will be used to promote libertarianism and/or to generally please the legal profession. In this case, Levy et al. presumably hope that allowing state governments a direct voice in the federal government would help restrain the latter's power, to the delight of libertarian lawyers. (Of course, they mean the federal government's power to run roughshod over state governments; the federal government's power to run roughshod over the electorate's wishes is rather more benign, in their eyes, as long as it's used "correctly".) There is, however, a huge, throbbing, screaming counterargument against this hope, one that has not exactly been out of the news lately, and that can be summed up in two words: European Union.

The EU consists of a directly elected parliament with little power, a bureaucracy called the European Commission, and a powerful governing body called the EU Council. This council is made up of the heads of the governments of each EU member state--providing the member states with even more direct control over the Union than an appointed Senate would have over the federal government. The result is an EU that is spectacularly unresponsive and notoriously corrupt. It is also, obviously, very, very far from a bastion of libertarianism and due process; far from seeking to restrain centralized power, the leaders of the member nations naturally see the EU as a potential lever with which to extend their reach by imposing their wills upon their fellow members. The thought that perhaps they should be aspiring to rein in, rather than expand, their own or their bureaucracy's prerogatives, apparently occurs to these professional power-wielders no more frequently than it would to, say, the average Supreme Court Justice.

Skeptics of democracy--particularly in America--tend to trust systems and mechanisms more than populations. They imagine that if they could only design a governmental structure with the right gears and levers, then power would simply be forced to operate in the directions dictated by the mechanism, irrespective of the intentions of the participants (including the general public). Unfortunately, governmental mechanisms are made up of people--indeed, primarily people who, by virtue of their chosen vocation, are inclined to try to bend the gears and levers of power in the direction they choose, whatever the intentions of the designers. I have no idea what appointed Senators would do with their suddenly-less-accountable role, but I am supremely confident of two things: that they would handle it much less responsibly than if they were directly elected (and thus accountable to the public for their actions); and that democracy's skeptics would quickly devise some newfangled (and even less democratic) structural "fix" to the system, rather than concede that there's simply no form of political accountability more effective than democratic accountability.

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