Random Thoughts

Democracies & their Paths to Perdition

The US was the first democracy of modern history. It won the guerilla war against Britain and opted for a loose association of states united to form a country. The Continental Congress was a governing body with no teeth. It had no power of taxation and depended on the states for money. It had no monopoly of force to enforce laws or coerce action. Each state tried to manipulate interstate commerce to enrich itself and beggar its neighbor. There were even border skirmishes between state militias. George Washington’s communications to the Continental Congress asking for money, supplies, arms and manpower during the revolutionary war with dereliction of duty by the toothless congress unwilling even to pay the salaries of the Continental army almost caused a mutiny at Newburg, New York.

It became clear to the founding fathers and the landowners, merchants and bankers that the union would not hold together because of commercial and border skirmishes, and the differences would be exploited by external European powers to deepen divisions and disputes. Thus a coup was planned by leading Americans with the tacit support of George Washington, the unimpeachable victor of the war of independence who had played the role of Cincinatus to the newborn nation. These were amongst the wealthy and powerful elite and desirous of ensuring their privileged position but equally afraid of an absolute monarch like George the third and also of the population at large which they considered an uneducated, unintelligent, poor and unworthy lot. They thus restricted the vote to adult men with property or artisan skill. Women, black slaves, native Americans, indentured servants and impoverished white men were denied the vote.

They allowed the House to be constituted annually by popular vote from the restricted electorate but countered with a Senate whose two members per state were selected by the legislators of each state. The president also was not elected by popular vote but by an electoral vote manipulated in smoke filled rooms where deals and intrigues ruled. During this interim period the Continental Congress had been issuing debt which was being sold at a deep discount. The soldiers who won the revolutionary war were paid not at all, late or in such scrip. This scrip was bought by speculators at ten to twenty-five cents to the dollar. Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary then redeemed those bonds at full face value from the speculators who made out just as well as Goldman Sachs and other credit default swap speculators did under Treasury Secretaries Paulson and Geithner, while the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan suffered the same deprivations as those of the revolutionary war. The state of Georgia illegally usurped and occupied Cherokee Indian lands. The Cherokees sued and won the final judgment in the US Supreme Court. Andrew Jackson the US president at that time who hated Indians refused to enforce the judgment or use the military or marshals and quipped (like Stalin about the Pope) that let the Chief Justice of the US enforce his ruling if he wants to.

Madison’s greatest worry was that the non-affluent majority would exercise the tyranny of the majority over the affluent minority. He did his best to deny any real power to the masses. His pet fear became reality when rebellions broke out in various states in which poor farmers demanded repudiation of their debt or reduction of their tax burden as in Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts and the Whiskey rebellion in western Pennsylvania. The tax and spend Democratic (Federalist) Congresses and reduce taxes and increase spending Republican Congresses since 1804 to the present is another way democracies ruin themselves.

The current and most damaging path to perdition that many commentators have commented on is the natural outcome of Madison’s folly of choosing the form of the US government in which there is no parliament. This allows house and senate members of the majority party to be in a position to vote against their party and its policy or legislation without any adverse consequences. On the contrary it allows such renegade legislators to blackmail their party in giving them, their states or their financiers special goodies, earmarks or pork barrel spending, as Senators Baucus, Nelson, Lieberman and others did with the healthcare bill recently. Such legislators put their own career and personal agenda above the national welfare and welfare, a sure path to national decline, disaster and ruin. There is little doubt that the US faces a dismal future because of its non-parliamentary form of government and the type of legislators it gives rise to like Senator Gramm and Congressman Tauzin and their likes.

A parliamentary form of democracy is not a guarantee of a great future. If the legislators are mostly corrupt crooks who get elected by intimidation or vote buying and if the political parties desire to rule to get rich and therefore willingly or otherwise merge or form coalitions with such crooks or co-opt them, we once again get poor governance with fiscal irresponsibility and personal enrichment as in India. The problems of Jharkhand and the Congress and BJP forming coalitions with Koda and Soren is a classic example of poor governance and lack of genuine integrity. Being elected becomes a path to illicit enrichment by virtue of holding office in India. That is another path to perdition different from the American one where legislators use their political power to pass unjust laws favoring the rich and get rewarded after they give up office and then get paid huge sums as consultants, for speeches or positions for past favors.


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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