Morse: CF, Woonsocket taking RI back to hereditary monarchyJuly 11th, 2012 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Ted Nesi is traveling on assignment.
If you are interested in understanding the eternal wisdom of the conservative viewpoint towards government, here are two questions to ask yourself: Do we really think that people are smarter now than they were in medieval times? Are we really sure we know more about governing ourselves than did our ancestors?
Governments of the medieval past were headed by kings, nobles and/or local warlords. The common folk didn’t have much say in who the leaders were who might demand taxes from them or start a war with the neighboring clan. Rulers ruled, they didn’t change often, and everyone else obeyed. People went along with this system because – well, truth be told, we can’t be fully sure why people went along with this system. There were theoretical justifications, like the king having a direct connection to God that allowed him to know best, but we don’t know the degree to which the medieval man-on-the-street bought into this versus just going along with the governing system that was there, because that was the easiest thing to do.
Fast-forward to the present. At least in this part of the world, kings (with real power) aren’t around anymore. Representative democracy has taken their place. People get an opportunity to select their leaders. Instead of kings and warlords, we have presidents, governors and mayors; instead of royal courts, we have legislatures.
Francis Fukuyama, in his recently published The Origins of Political Order, explains why this is an improvement. Looking across a broad swath of history, Fukuyama identifies three institutions – the state, the rule of law and accountability – that are necessary for the development of governments and societies that are “peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and have extremely low levels of corruption.” Accountability is obviously much stronger in a representative democracy than under a king, and there is a good case that the flourishing of the rule of law depends on representative government too.
But back to the original question: despite the advantages that we think representative democracy brings, are we really sure we are smarter now about governing ourselves than were people in the past? Do we go along with the idea of representative government because we really understand that it is to our advantage to do so – or are we just going along with the system that happens to be there?
* * *
These questions are being tested in present-day Rhode Island. The catalyst is the large amount of debt run up by all levels of government in the United States. More money has been promised, in the form of traditional borrowing obligations and employee retirement benefits, than governments have easy access to. Municipal government, the level of government most restricted in its ability to adjust, has run short first.
In Rhode Island, part of the response to the municipal financial crunch has been a scaling back of municipal-level representative democracy. The state hasn’t gone as far as empowering hereditary monarchs, but it has decided that in fiscal emergencies some very basic government powers traditionally reserved for elected representatives – like the power to command taxation – should be given to officials who are not directly accountable to the people, so that the administrative and judicial processes for dealing with debt through modern bankruptcy law can be separated from politics and made more “efficient.”
The first place this was tried in Rhode Island was the city of Central Falls. The elected mayor and City Council were replaced with a state-appointed “receiver” given the power to exercise all government functions. The implementation in Central Falls met with much approval, and repeating it in the city of Woonsocket now has more than a few supporters – even amongst some democratically elected politicians. But replacing an elected government with an unelected one is not a step essential to unraveling a fiscal mess. Places like Stockton, Calif. – also in the news recently due to fiscal strains – have entered the bankruptcy process under a regularly elected government. The idea that suspending local democracy is a necessary precondition for declaring bankruptcy is largely a Rhode Island thing.
Notably, it seems that the idea of just following the current government isn’t as complete an explanation for political behavior as we might have initially thought. During times of large-scale stress, there remains within us humans a desire to transfer power to a king, who can solve our problems for us.
Maybe we’re not so different from our ancestors after all.
* * *
Rhode Island caught a break, at least initially. In Central Falls, a succession of benevolent rulers steered the city back towards rational fiscal management. But in Woonsocket, the existence of the receivership law spawned something else entirely. Once pathways to power outside of the democratic process were opened up, a number of political leaders became less focused on the substance of the problems they were facing, and more concerned with who held political power, e.g. which individuals would be granted titles like “budget commissioner” and the associated right to rule in the name of highest officer in government, rather than as chosen representatives of the people. Weakening democratic structure quickly led to the same inside-the-palace intrigue that was present in the non-democratic structures of earlier ages, when members of the royal court (say, from the House of Baldelli) might appeal to the local prince (call him the Prince of Exeter) to help depose their rivals (maybe from the House of Fontaine).
The receivership law thus failed on its own terms. Rather than taking politics out of fiscal-crisis decision making, the receivership law amped up politics to the nth degree.
We have seen enough now to be reminded that people today won’t behave any better than our ancestors did, if political power is decoupled from accountability. The advantages we enjoy today over our ancestors are not based on our being smarter than they were, but on the fact that we have been able to incorporate into our lives what they learned from the successes and failures in theirs. Over many generations, our ancestors learned that accountable government was better than the alternatives and bequeathed to us political institutions that give us more freedom to behave better than they did. Should we choose to actively forget the lessons they learned for us, we will become complicit in dragging government back towards the practices that existed before the importance of accountable government was understood – and towards the less peaceful, less prosperous society that will result.
Rhode Island, for centuries a home to a special brand of strong belief in freedom, should be a place that steadfastly refuses to give ideas about undermining democracy any kind of a basic foothold. The governing and governed alike should reject the idea that democratic accountability must be sacrificed to solve problems over money.
Carroll Andrew Morse is a contributing writer at Anchor Rising.