Of the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers

In the 1990s I was part of a congressional delegation to Argentina. At that time the Argentine economy was growing strongly and steadily, inflation was low, the currency was pegged to the dollar, convertible 1-for-1. Trade barriers were being lowered, commerce was booming. I recall asking Argentines what could possibly darken what seemed to be a very bright future. They were quick to reply: “Here in Argentina we have no rule of law. You can have no confidence in getting justice from the courts.”

That reminded me of Washington Irving’s observation on a European judge, from his famous work, The Alhambra:

It could not be denied, however, that he set a high value upon justice, for he sold it at its weight in gold.

Not long after that visit, the politics of income redistribution and confiscation threw the Argentine economy into turmoil, where it has remained.

I recently spoke with an economist friend of mine, who was waxing eloquent about the attractive monetary and tax policies in Bulgaria. I remarked that this would probably invite foreign investment. He replied, “No, there is no rule of law there.”

The point is that good economic policy cannot long survive inadequate legal safeguards. Many businesses that made major investments in China, attracted by a market of a billion people, have learned that the lack of a reliable legal and justice system in China has undermined much of the business value they thought to find. A similar story has been holding back investment and economic development in Russia.

Bringing that home, I would venture that concern for changing rules (or even lack of rules)—the substitution of arbitrary bureaucratic powers in Washington over objective rule of law—has been inhibiting more robust investment in the United States, a major cause for our current anemic economic recovery.

An ancient king in the Western Hemisphere, named Mosiah, warned, “because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.” (Mosiah 29:16) Because men are not consistently just, freedom has historically rested upon rule by law rather than rule by men.

Fundamentally, that was the very reason for the American Revolution. Our revolution was based on the rule of law, an assertion of the rule of law, a response to violations of the rule of law by the English king and parliament. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a lengthy litany of violations of law by the English rulers. The Revolution was designed to take power away from man and men and rest it upon laws and rights, soon to be secured by a written supreme law embodied in the Constitution. Any erosion in the force and effect of the Constitution is an erosion of the rule of law and of the freedoms that rely upon law for their defense.

The Progressive Movement that thrived about a century ago, and found a major advocate in the federal government in President Woodrow Wilson, aggressively proposed an alternative to the rule of law. This program was the Rule of Experts. Their new view—and it really was a very old view though they dressed it up in modern-sounding rhetoric—was that there are Benign People, Experts, who know the process of modern government better than most people do, to whom we can safely yield governing authorities.

It sounds akin to the ancient theory of Divine Right of Kings, that the monarchs of the world are chosen by God and endowed with greater wisdom and perspective than the average man and woman. To their benign expertise and fatherly care was to be entrusted the governance of the rest of us.

The modern Rule of Experts people have much the same view, that these experts were endowed by their universities and other sources of expertise with ability far above that of most, and it would be wise to trust ourselves to their benign care. Not very democratic, and in fact these Benign Experts make no secret of their impatience with the Congress and other constitutional brakes on arbitrary authority.

As King Mosiah wisely pointed out that men are not always just, it is also appropriate to recognize that putting men in government does not make them any more reliably wise than the rest of us. The American Founders thought to address this problem by dividing political power among not only three branches in the Federal Government but also by embracing the federal system of dividing government with the States.

The current regulatory structure and program of the United States rest heavily on the idea that Benign Experts should be entrusted with authority for many of the big questions facing Americans and for many of the much smaller questions, too. That is certainly the structure of the Dodd-Frank Act, to offer one recent, prominent example among many.

Charles Calomiris, of the Columbia University business school, described the theory of the Dodd-Frank Act and related regulations this way:

The implicit theory behind these sorts of initiatives, to the extent that there is a theory, is that the recent crisis happened because regulatory standards were not quite complex enough, because the extensive discretionary authority of bank supervisors was not great enough, and because rules and regulations prohibiting or discouraging specific practices were not sufficiently extensive.
(Charles W. Calomiris, “Meaningful Banking Reform and Why it Is so Unlikely,” VoxEU, January 8, 2013)

This program of federal regulation has been imposed increasingly in contravention of the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers, by merging legislative, executive, and judicial authority in “independent” regulatory agencies. The unelected federal regulator today decides the details and specifics of binding mandates, identifies violators of those regulations, assesses guilt, and applies penalties.

Taken together our current regulatory system, by merging rather than maintaining the separation of powers of the Constitution, is eroding the rule of law. It is returning us to the age old practice of rule by men, with all of the potential for abuse of rights and freedoms, abuses that fill up most of the sadder pages of human history.

During the debate over the creation of the new financial consumer Bureau, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Dodd boasted that with this new agency people would no longer have to come to Congress for the enactment of new consumer laws. The Bureau would take care of all that.

There are serious operational flaws—too often overlooked—in the program of governance by Benign Experts. First, the regulators are not dispassionate umpires, limited to calling the balls and strikes. These umpires are also players in the game, the federal agencies each having their own set of particular interests and incentives that they take care of first.

Second, reliance on Benign Experts assumes an unproven, undemonstrated level of knowledge, insight, and forecasting skills. AEI President Arthur Brooks, in his book, The Battle, provides one of many examples of this flaw:

Federal Reserve economists were still forecasting significant positive growth and moderate unemployment in May and June 2008. They believed that economic growth in 2009 would be 2.4 percent, and unemployment would be 5.5 percent. What we experienced instead was negative growth, double-digit unemployment, and the destruction of at least $50 trillion in worldwide wealth. No one can get the numbers exactly right, to be sure. But getting them this much wrong certainly lends a whole new meaning to the expression ‘margin of error.’
(Arthur C. Brooks, The Battle, p.46)

It is not that regulators are dumber than the rest of the population, but they are no smarter either. The regulatory problems are increasingly too great for any designated group of humans to solve.

Third flaw, mission creep: power attracts power. Even if the tasks are too great, require too much knowledge, insight, foresight, and other skills in unachievable degree, the regulators still take them on, especially if the task increases the reach and influence of the agency.

I offer two examples from an example-rich environment.

Basel III capital rules started from a simple idea, that banks all around the world should be subject to the same capital standards. Capital (the financial cushion a bank carries against losses) is one of the three key elements of sound banking, the other two being liquidity and earnings. These international rules did not remain simple. Developed by an international team of experts from around the world, who labored on them for years, the rules number hundreds of pages, affecting the entire financial structure and business model of a bank, any bank. Congress was not involved and has no particular role in approving the rules. When exposed to public review they attracted thousands of comment letters expressing dismay that they are a bad fit for the U.S. economy. In the end, though, the regulators can go ahead with what they alone think is best.

A second example would be the Federal Reserve. One hundred years ago this year the Fed was created with a specific, identifiable, and rather narrow purpose, to provide liquidity for the banking system in times of financial stress. Before long, the Federal Reserve gained control of monetary policy and built up the practice of controlling interest rates. Later, it was given the task of promoting maximum employment. Under Dodd-Frank the Federal Reserve’s role in supervising banks and bank holding companies was expanded to supervising any financial business considered to be significant for financial stability. Each of these powers has drawn the Federal Reserve away from its narrow, objective task, to broad fields of subjective authority.

Perversely, this expansion of authority into more judgmental areas is eroding the independence of the Federal Reserve, making it yet one more political player in Washington, with responsibilities that far exceed human ability to fulfill, but which reach to every business and every home. The Fed’s prolonged policy of keeping short-term interest rates at or about zero has penalized all who save and live off of their savings, transferring trillions of dollars from savers to borrowers, the biggest borrower being the Federal Government, a policy decided by a small group of Washington experts.

I offer a partial but simple solution to point us back toward strengthening the rule of law and reducing our exposure to the rule of man and men, however expert they might be. Return the lawmaking and the policy decisions to the elected representatives. It is a messy process, but exactly the messy process that the Founders intended to preserve freedom from the encroachment of arbitrary and oppressive government. The regulators, which are theoretically part of the executive branch, should be left with the duty of implementing the laws and policy decisions that the elected and accountable representatives make.

If Congress were required to write the rules and mandates and delegate to the executive agencies only the execution, the mandates of government would be circumscribed by the limitations of a legislative body forced to be directly accountable for what it has wrought. It is easy for legislators to complain about bad regulatory decisions, when all too often these are decisions that Congress never should have delegated to regulators in the first place.

We would still have laws and regulations, but the laws might be more direct and specific, and perhaps fewer and surely smaller. We would probably not have Dodd-Frank Acts that number thousands of pages read by no congressman or Senator, containing a cacophony of half-baked ideas and multiple solutions to the same problem, all left for the regulators to sort out.

And legislators might recall this caution, from Thomas Paine:

Laws difficult to be executed cannot be generally good.
(Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)

(First published February 17, 2013)

Of Self Determination and Carving Up the World

Woodrow Wilson unleashed some nasty asps of public policy on the world, the venom of which continues to work its misery on mankind. Professor Wilson as President pushed into practice the idea that American governance should be shifted from the people who elect Senators and representatives and entrusted instead to a cadre of wise men in the executive branch. Experts like himself, elite college professors and their best students, would know better how to manage the affairs of others than would the teaming masses of the nation left to make their own decisions.

Today, thousands of regulations, uncounted yards of red tape, and millions of bureaucrats later, we all live within a shrinking sphere of personal liberty, with diminishing control of our lives, permitted to make few decisions without someone we do not know having a major say in so much of what we have and do. Increasing numbers of our neighbors have effectively been rendered wards of the state, unable to manage their own lives without dependence upon a myriad of government programs that punish individual initiative and grind up families. Today, the most reliable predictor of poverty in America is being a single mother. Lured into the web of sweet-sounding sticky federal, state, and even local programs that promise help, these government victims are rarely delivered from poverty, and neither are their children or their grandchildren. This is surely not what Woodrow Wilson intended, but it is surely what his model of governance by experts has delivered. Obamacare is one of the most recent and obvious examples of this machinery of misery.

Yet it can be argued that nothing that Woodrow Wilson bequeathed has worked more harm than the destructive principle of “self determination,” imposed by Wilson and his international experimenters at the negotiations to rearrange the world after World War I. Of course, he did not act alone, but Wilson did much to make the world safe for World War II. Self determination worked its evil by institutionalizing perpetual turmoil in eastern Europe and the Balkans, as bickering and unstable micro-states created a power vacuum tempting for fuehrers and commissars to fill.

The concept of self determination can seem appealing as long as you do not pause long enough to consider how it might actually play out in practice and over time. The basic idea—and it does not go very far past this basic idea—is that every group of people has the right to find its own place in the sun, either with its own government or subject to another, whichever the group might wish.

It was this idea that Russian boss Vladimir Putin invoked to cloak his grab of Crimea. The people of Crimea had a vote (carefully monitored by Russian troops) in which over 95% said that they wanted to break away from Ukraine. And then they decided, almost the next day, that they wanted to become a part of Russia. According to the Russian Government, this was all very legal and in keeping with international law. It was self determination. Who could object? It was more than faintly reminiscent of the nearly unanimous votes in the nations of eastern Europe a generation ago—when occupied by the Red Army—in favor of communist regimes closely allied with the old Soviet Union. More self determination.

I wonder whether Professor/President Woodrow Wilson thought of how his principle of self determination would have worked in American history? What if Wilson instead of Lincoln had been President in 1861? Did self determination apply to the people of the southern states who wished to leave the Union?

I also wonder how dedicated Vladimir Putin really is to the principle of self determination? If it applies to Crimea, does it also apply to the people of Chechnya, who seem to be eager to be out of Russia? Are there other minority populations in Russia yearning to breathe free?

How about elsewhere in the world? Is self determination a universal principle worthy of universal application? Are Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran ready to let the Kurdish minorities carve up their countries and realize their dream of a new Kurdistan? How about Muslim minorities in southern islands of the Philippines? The Tamil populated northern Sri Lanka? The Sunni-majority communities in Shiite majority Iraq? The multitude of tribal groupings in virtually every country of sub-Saharan Africa? Are all of the many minorities of China content with being governed by Beijing?

When would the bloodletting of self determination ever end? It has not ended yet, whether used as a justification for aggression or as a means of sustaining discontent. It is a ponderous legacy.

Of Limited Freedom and Limited Government

I live and work near the belly of the beast, and I can report that these days he is not happy. His belly is rumbling. He has eaten more than he can digest. Watch out, he may throw up. He is already belching.

The federal government is not working, we know and see. Not only is it not working as was intended when it was created by the States, it is not working as designed and over designed in subsequent years. The federal government cannot manage the national parks, the welfare system is breaking down, the national transportation infrastructure takes in more money and yet the signs of dysfunction and decay on roads, rails, and bridges are increasingly apparent. Banks are regulated with thousands of rules while the banking industry continues to shrink: we have fewer banks today than we did in 1891, and their share of the financial markets has been dwindling for decades. So much of what the federal government touches turns to rust and ruin.

Yet the federal government keeps reaching out for more, undeterred by its failures. The Environmental Protection Agency aggressively imposes restrictions on the air we exhale, the Food and Drug Administration announces plans to control the fat in our foods, the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection has decided what kind of mortgages lenders can make and what kind of people can get them (acknowledging that many who qualify today will be outside the boundaries of federal standards in 2014).

You can augment this brief sampling of a longer list from your own experiences. This is nothing new, other than perhaps in frequency and intensity. If there is a virtue in Obamacare it may be that its unworkability and its increasingly universal hurt are demonstrating broadly what many have been feeling individually.

Demonstrating the hurt is not the same as redressing it. The beast, however ill, will not cheerfully surrender its prey. During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, one commenter, writing in the Philadelphia newspaper Independent Gazetteer (October 12, 1787), observed, “People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it”, and then warned that the Feds could not be counted on, by their own volition, to do “any thing which shall derogate from their own authority and importance . . . or give back to the people any part of those privileges which they have once parted with”. If that was predictable in 1787, it is painfully apparent today. Perhaps the clearest example is how the Washington power elites have exempted themselves and their cronies from the application of Obamacare while continuing to inflict it on the rest.

And yet, Obamacare is the hurt that keeps on hurting. People will not get over it or get used to it. Its pain and suffering will be felt again and again with each new illness, every new tax, as its strictures reduce availability, affordability, and quality of wellbeing. Wave after wave of new harm will come, astonishing its supporters and augmenting the ranks of its victims until it is addressed.

Americans, much like other people, will put up with much before they are roused to action. Unlike for many other people, our Constitution gives us avenues for action. The Constitution embodies the concept of continual redress within the rule of law to make appeal to extremities outside of the rule of law unnecessary and unthinkable, so long as the principles of the Constitution retain their vitality.

The core principle of the Constitution is limited government, designed to protect the growth and expansion of human freedom. Increasingly, for about a century, the “progressives” in Washington have turned public affairs on their heads. Human freedom has been the focus of limitation, while government enjoyed constant growth and expansion. The end seems approaching, either of the ability of government to manage what it has taken on, or perhaps (and hopefully) when the holders of power can no longer convince enough people that it is all for their own good. Limitation on government may return in vogue as promises of government solutions to feed the beast ring ever more hollow.

The Philadelphia writer of 1787, whom I cited above, was a critic of the Constitution, because he believed it impossible that the power gathered in by the federal government could be wrested from its hands. I remain hopeful that it still can be. Nothing else will work.

Of Claiming Good and Doing Bad

A very good book was published this month. Ostensibly, it is about our economy and the recession. It is actually about much more. It is the first book about the current American economy written by a philosopher, and it is perhaps the best book I have read yet about all the recent unpleasantness. Some might say that the economic trouble still continues, more like a long, slow convalescence from a serious illness than a healthy recovery. For many whose financial condition stagnates, for those who have replaced a full-time job with one or two part-time jobs, for graduates who have a degree in hand but no work in the field for which they have trained, and especially for the millions who remain out of work, talk of an economic turnaround can seem like a mockery.

For those and others, Infiltrated, by Jay W. Richards, can help make some sense of what hit us. The book does not suggest that there was a massive conspiracy to drive our nation into economic turmoil. It explains how turmoil came nevertheless as national policymakers followed the prescriptions of people who claimed to be doing good but tried to cheat the laws of economics and markets to impose what they might call “benevolence” on the rest of us.

It was their idea that in order to help more people own homes lenders should ignore such things as ability to repay a mortgage, strong history of employment and steady income, and having some equity in the value of the house so there would not be an incentive to walk away if prices dropped. They also agitated for the government to expand its guaranties for mortgages to people with poor credit histories and loans where lenders cut corners. And they badgered builders to keep building more houses.

Their plans horribly miscarried, and yet those people have even more control over us and our economy today and are more able and determined to try again. The recession, rather than educating and deterring them, has made them bolder.

I am reminded of what the late Louis Rukeyser, the very popular host of the PBS program Wall Street Week, wrote in the 1990s:

Washington has been taken over by an impregnable mob of short-sighted, power-hungry megaclowns.

They try their worst to micromanage every detail of the economy, but succeed only in whipping the markets back and forth, up and down in spastic patterns. They despise the gentler forces of a free market, which would moderate swings far more predictably.
(Louis Rukeyser, 1993 advertisement for his financial newsletter)

The people to whom I refer and whom Richards exposes in his book do not like the markets. They trust themselves more and think that you should trust them, too. They seriously do believe themselves smarter than the markets, and that is the problem. No one, other than God, is smarter than the markets. A large part of economic history, the tragic part, is a chronicle of the disasters caused when a small coterie of people are able to enforce their wishes and preferences on the rest of us in contravention of economic reality. It never works.

That was the story of the Great Depression, and it was entirely the story of communism, where whole societies were based upon the now well-proven fallacy that any group of people, no matter how smart or well intentioned, can gather sufficient data and know and understand enough to run a national economy. It is just far too complicated, with billions of economic decisions being made by millions of people all day and all night long. The markets make it all work, because the markets are the sum combined total of all of those economic actions and decisions interacting with each other. No human five-year plan for economic control has escaped failure.

What is worse, as well intentioned as such people may start out, all too often, as Richards’ book exposes, their efforts not only fail to do what they set out to do, they fail to stay virtuous and instead become enlisted in the service of private gain at the expense of the rest of us. The Soviet system might have worked pretty well for the party owners of the dachas along the Black Sea but only by impoverishing the workers their leaders claimed to be serving.

Do not let yourself be put off that Richards is a philosopher. His book is remarkably readable, one that you can take with you to the beach and actually enjoy, and feel that you have learned something—a lot—in the reading. Richards mixes real life narrative with hard facts and good research, unified by sound reasoning to expose a nasty and growing problem in American government today. The problem is a big part of why government is expanding and becoming more intrusive in all aspects of our lives, including our financial affairs, education, healthcare, energy use, the products we buy, the food we eat, and the entertainment we enjoy, and even the breath we exhale.

That is to say that the story told by Jay Richards, in Infiltrated, is actually a longer story, a story that began long before the recession, and continues afterward, a story that is bigger than his book. The recent economic events and their painful aftermath illuminate Richards’ core message, the human wreckage caused when some people are able to harness the coercive force of government to impose their personal notions of “benevolence” on the rest of us.

Roger Kimball, writing in 2011 in The New Criterion, warned that such efforts are “intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.” (Roger Kimball, “Liberty versus benevolence,” The New Criterion, February 2011, p.6) Richards offers several well-described examples, well illustrating the truth of Kimball’s observations.

A valuable lesson for policymakers and for the people they would govern: the more discretion you give to government, the more you create the opportunity for abuse of that discretion for private gain. Europe in the 18th century was lousy with the practice. Our forebears sought to escape it and fought a revolution to get out of its grip. The men who threw the tea into Boston Harbor were acting in protest of the partnership between the British Crown and the British East India Company.

Beware the public-private partnerships. Jay Richards explains how some public-private mortgage partnerships went bad, very bad, for the partners and for all of us caught in the dust and debris of their collapse. I am reminded of the warning by former Congressman Dick Armey, that when you enter into a partnership with the devil, you are always the junior partner.

I conclude with the words of New York City Democrat Congressman Bourke Cockran, delivered 110 years ago:

That Government only is good, that Government only is great, that Government only is just, which has neither favorites nor victims.

(W. Bourke Cockran, speech given before the National Liberal Club of England, London, July 15, 1903, in W. Bourke Cockran, In the Name of Liberty, p.190)

Our government should be that government.

(First published August 18, 2013)