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May 23 2007

The power pendulum

It has been some time since I wrote about John Rawl’s ideas in his book The Theory of Justice but the more I see how political developments are evolving both in the US and in the world, the greater the value of implementing his ideas.

The key idea that he proposed was that when creating a system or structure for anything, we should work under a ‘veil of ignorance’ in which we do not know which particular individual or group characteristic we ourselves will have once the system is underway. What this insures is that we will try and create a system that is as fair as possible for everyone.

The problem in real life is that the people who create (say) the laws that govern us already know which group they belong to so there is a strong temptation to create a system that perpetuates and increases their own strength and influence, at the expense of those who are not influential. This is why the legal and tax systems tend to favor the already well-to-do.

In government, we have seen what has happened in the last six years. With the Republicans controlling the Presidency and the two chambers of Congress from 2000-2006, the system of checks and balances carefully instituted in the US constitution was not enforced as the Congress essentially abandoned its oversight role and gave the administration a blank check at home and abroad.

The damage was compounded by an administration that had a dangerous penchant for secretiveness coupled with the strong desire to increase the power of the administrative branch of the government to the level of an autocratic state.

The Cheney/Bush/Rove regime seems to be under the assumption that they had a permanent majority and that thus they could create a system where they could simply do what they wanted and no one would challenge them. So basic human rights could be abandoned, torture allowed, the Department of Justice could be made a largely political arm, wars could be waged under false pretenses, and so on. They steamrolled legislation through Congress, not just using their majority to lock out the minority, but denying even careful scrutiny for the consequences of the legislation. The USA Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Iraq war authorization act, and the NSA warrantless wiretapping program are all examples of such things.

The recent revelations of the firing of US attorneys after stealthily passing legislation allowing for replacements to avoid confirmation hearings, and the astounding attempt by Gonzales and Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card to coerce then Attorney General John Ashcroft while he was ill in hospital to authorize a program that career Justice Department officials had deemed illegal are examples of an administration that has contempt for law and propriety and seeks to get its way at all costs.

The fact that the Director of the FBI had to order his agents to not allow Gonzales and Card to force then Deputy Attorney General James Comey out of the hospital room while they tried to pressure Ashcroft shows the depths to which this administration will sink. Any self respecting Attorney General would have resigned in disgrace or been fired by any self-respecting President. But not these people. They have no shame because they have been lulled into a sense that they can do what they want. (As usual, it is Jon Stewart who best appreciates what an astounding revelation this is of the administration’s lawless mentality.)

But nothing remains the same and now with control of the Congress turning back to the Democrats, some oversight is returning. We already see Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez coming under close scrutiny for trying to replace career people with political operatives throughout the department. We see the Secretary of State coming under close examination for her role in the infamous “yellowcake from Niger” scam.

What happens is that when the Democrats take full control of all both houses of Congress and the White House, they will seek to get rid of the political operatives currently put in place. But with whom will they replace them? With people who are primarily career people or their own operatives? The temptation will be strong to replace them with their own Democratic operatives, in a tit-for-tat retaliation, so that Republicans get a taste of their own medicine.

But such pendulum swings in power and patronage do little to enhance the credibility of government or serve the people as a whole. Agencies like the Department of Justice and the IRS can only function effectively if the public sees them as at least somewhat impartial. And the only way to do that is to create systems where you take into account that different groups will inevitably rotate into power and be in control and yet the system serves everyone well.

The same argument applies to foreign policy. This administration is running roughshod over the rest of the world, and the only reason they think they can do so is because the US is the strongest military power right now and there is no danger of retaliation except by fringe groups. So they can and do invade other countries, kidnap people, put them in secret prisons, and torture them. But if there is one lesson that history teaches, it is that all great military powers eventually decline, usually because of internal decay, and there is no reason to think that the US is any exception. What will happen to the US when the major military power in the world is another country?

This is why it is so important to follow the principles that Rawls outlined, and create structures and follow patterns of behavior on the assumption that the tide will turn and that you will one day be in the weak or powerless situation. This is why things like the Geneva conventions, rules of law, and other treaties should be followed since they protect the strong as well as the weak and eventually membership in those two categories will change.

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