15 April 2016

Com que autoridade? By what authority?

Another of my articles has appeared in Portuguese on the túporem website: Com que autoridade? This is a translation of By What Authority? The Limits of Niebuhr's Transformational Christianity.

14 April 2016

England’s greatest export

Anglophiles. We all know them. They like everything English, from marmalade and Earl Grey tea to shepherd’s pie, blood pudding and spotted dick. (Google it! Trust me; it’s not what it sounds like.) They avidly watched the concluding episode of Downton Abbey last month and may even affect certain British pronunciations in their speech. They like the BBC and probably worship – if they go in for that sort of thing – at a high Anglican church.

Some three centuries ago a certain French aristocrat surnamed Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a different sort of Anglophile. A lawyer and man of letters, he spent two years in England and was favourably impressed by the experience. He had come to admire in particular England’s political institutions for their durability and reputation for protecting liberty. Through many centuries of constitutional development, the subjects of the English king enjoyed rights that the French could only dream of. Beginning with Magna Carta (1215) and extending up through the Petition of Right (1628) and Bill of Rights (1689), the powers of the king had gradually been limited and parliamentary government came into the ascendancy.

This was in stark contrast to his own country, whose political life had been relentlessly centralized in the person of the monarch. “L’état c’est moi!” King Louis XIV famously uttered. “I am the state!” From Montesquieu’s side of La Manche (the English Channel), England looked pretty good, with its division of sovereignty amongst King, Lords and Commons; its jury system; and its balanced constitution. No one in particular had invented this form of government; it simply came about by happy circumstance – and, of course, a fair bit of conflict.

In 1748 Montesquieu published his political ideas in The Spirit of the Laws. “One nation there is also in the world that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty,” he wrote, with reference to England. Some four decades later on this side of the pond, the leaders of the newly independent American states drew heavily on Montesquieu’s magnum opus in fashioning their own constitutional document. There was perhaps a certain irony in Americans, who had just won a war for independence from England, borrowing from English models as interpreted by an admiring Frenchman. Yet for generations Americans had been accustomed to representative institutions inherited from the motherland. One of the key features they incorporated into their system was the separation of powers, thought at the time to characterize England’s constitution.

A century later, however, things looked rather different in what by then had become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Writing in 1867, the journalist Walter Bagehot argued that the genius of The English Constitution (the title of his book on the subject) was not a separation of powers, but a “fusion of powers,” namely, the concentration of both legislative and executive powers in the cabinet, making for a highly efficient system able to get things done with a minimum of fuss. This is what we now know as the Westminster system of responsible government: the government of the day governs as long as it enjoys the confidence of the Commons, and if that confidence is withdrawn, the government resigns.

In the same year Bagehot published his influential book, our own Fathers of Confederation created a new federal union of four of the British North American colonies. Drawing again on their own political experience, they transplanted the Westminster system into the Dominion of Canada. A little over a generation later Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa would follow suit, each operating under a more or less identical arrangement.

The British Parliament is often styled the “Mother of Parliaments,” due to its having been replicated in so many other countries. Because the English constitution has proven so durable and flexible in its homeland, it has been widely imitated. If the United States and Canada appear now to have different political systems based on contrasting principles, it is because each drew on England’s constitution at different stages in its development. Nevertheless, the two forms have served our respective countries well, and we could certainly do a lot worse.

Am I an Anglophile then? Well, I couldn’t manage to get past season two of Downton Abbey, so perhaps not. Nevertheless, I thank God to have lived my life in two countries that are heir to a highly successful political system with an enviable reputation of doing public justice over a vast swath of the globe’s surface.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and We Answer to Another:Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He teaches politics at Redeemer University College and has lived in Canada for just over half his life. This post was published in the author's Principalities & Powers column in the 11 April 2016 issue of Christian Courier.

05 April 2016

On civil disobedience

For one day only my Christianity Today article is out from behind the paywall: Is It Time for American Christians to Disobey the Government? Tomorrow I will be interviewed on the subject of this article on Let's Talk with Mark Elfstrand over radio station WYLL AM 1160 in Chicago.

04 April 2016

The tempering of democracy: How recovering the classical mixed constitution could affect the way we vote

No, it isn't just about Trump. Or Clinton or Sanders. It's about democracy itself, which most of us have come to think of as an unmitigated good. Throughout much of western history, however, democracy had a bad reputation, often seen as the penultimate stage in a constitution's degeneration, to be followed by that absolute worst form of government, tyranny. Plato in particular had many reasons to oppose democracy, which had led Athens into a disastrous war with Sparta and to the death of his revered mentor Socrates. The lesson for Plato seemed obvious: No ship's captain in his right mind would poll his crew on the best way to run the ship; he would instead rely on his own specialized knowledge. Similarly, a statesman who knows the art of statesmanship should govern according to this knowledge, not according to the shifting whims of a fickle and untutored public.

Plato's political philosophy has been castigated as unabashedly élitist, as something out of step with our own times. Nevertheless his fear of democracy was shared by most of the western tradition until very recently. Sir Winston Churchill gave democracy a backhanded compliment when he famously called it “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

By contrast, one-time American presidential aspirant Alfred E. Smith offered a different diagnosis: “the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Over the past century the United States has moved increasingly in Smith's more evidently ideological direction rather than following Churchill's more cautious path. If the American founders established a federal republic similar in many respects to Great Britain's 18th-century constitution, their 19th- and 20th-century successors moved decisively to democratize as many institutions as they could manage, including the presidency, the Senate (1913) and many lower-level courts. These efforts gathered steam in the early years of the last century as the Progressive Movement sought at once to break the power of the old party bosses and to bring the insights of the social sciences to bear on public life.

One of the Progressives' key reforms was to institute a limited number of internal party primary elections as a way of testing a prospective candidate's appeal to the electorate. A candidate's performance in these pre-elections would be taken into account by the delegates to the party's convention later in the year, but they were by no means determinative of a victor in the larger nomination process. Generally there were still battles to be fought and decisions to be made at the convention itself.

This all changed when in 1968 the Democratic convention meeting in Chicago chose Vice-President Hubert Humphrey as its presidential nominee, despite his not having entered a single primary election beforehand. The resulting outrage within the party led to reforms aimed at further democratizing the nomination process, thereby carrying to its conclusion a process begun decades earlier. No more smoke-filled rooms where party bosses would choose a presidential candidate. Now the people themselves would choose the candidate through an increasing number of primaries and state party caucuses, the results of which would bind the convention delegates. A brokered convention would thus be rendered increasingly unlikely, and a party going into an election with an evidently weak presidential and vice-presidential team would be powerless to find replacements so late in the process. This unintended consequence has negatively affected both Democrats and Republicans at various times.

Might we do well to admit, not that democracy is a bad thing, but that too much democracy can harm a country's constitution? Indeed, if the prudential judgment in favor of democracy becomes an ideological democratism, animated by a belief in the infallibility of the popular will, the possibilities of abuse multiply accordingly. Candidates and parties are tempted to make promises that they must know they cannot keep and that no government, qua government, may even be competent to fulfill. Philosopher Yves R. Simon once wrote: “Any regime, in order to work well or merely to survive, needs or may need the operation of principles distinct from, and opposed to, its own idea.” Though this adage is not restricted to democracy, it definitely includes it: “a nondemocratic principle may serve democracy by holding in check forces fatal to it.” Some of those forces are the unintended side-effects of democracy itself, especially if the democratic principle is extended too far and the general will of the people comes to trump the rule of law.

Indeed even the rule of law is a nondemocratic principle, sorely needed to hold in check the potentially arbitrary whims of the popular will. But much more is needed. Beginning with Polybios in the 2nd century BC, many political philosophers concluded that the best constitution is one that incorporates elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into a composite form. While each of the three alone tends to degenerate into an abusive distortion of just government, the mixed constitution will be more durable, as monarchical, aristocratic and democratic elements check each other. In some fashion, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin endorsed the mixed constitution. In the 18th century Baron Montesquieu admired the English constitution whose durability and protection of liberty he ascribed to its division of powers, including a balanced relationship between King, Lords, and Commons; an independent judiciary; and the jury system.

Two generations later the American founders drew on Montesquieu as they undertook to establish a new federal government characterized by checks and balances among three branches of government and a federal division of powers. And in the following century, Canada's Fathers of Confederation set up “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” consisting of a popularly elected House of Commons, an appointed Senate and an appointed Governor General to represent the Queen. While recognizing the need for democratic participation in public affairs, they were under no illusions that they were creating an unqualified democracy and had no difficulty retaining nondemocratic institutions as integral components of the larger political framework.

What relevance does the classical mixed constitution have for choosing candidates for public office? The need for democracy is satisfied by giving citizens a choice between two or more candidates thoroughly vetted by their respective party organizations and presented to the people as the best persons for the job. The aristocratic principle—necessary in all political systems—should come into play within the parties themselves as would-be candidates are screened in accordance with established criteria to insure a high level of competence and personal integrity. Only then would they be brought before the public for their verdict.

I am reluctant, of course, to advocate the abolition of primary elections and a return to the smoke-filled rooms of the past. In this democratic age, even the faintest whiff of élitism could elicit a negative response from many quarters. Nevertheless, as a potential voter, I would prefer to think that the leaders of whichever party I favor have done everything they can to nominate a quality candidate before I have to make a choice. Is that too much to ask?

This post is cross-listed at First Thoughts.

03 April 2016

Confessions of a dual citizen

As many readers may already know, I was born an American citizen just outside of Chicago, becoming a Canadian a little over two decades ago. As my birth family was politically minded, I became aware at an early age of events in our country and in the larger world. My earliest memory was of the 1960 presidential campaign, while easily the most traumatic event of my childhood was the assassination of President John Kennedy. The Cold War and the threat of communism were near the surface of our thoughts much of the time, especially because one of our neighbours had been a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag for 10 years after the end of the war.

Presidential election campaigns always elicited our interest. In those years both parties had progressive and conservative wings. White Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics tended to vote Democratic, while northern evangelical and mainline Protestants generally voted Republican. Democrats and Republicans were not that far apart, both claiming to stand in the larger liberal tradition, differing only on which party was its legitimate heir.

However, in the time I’ve lived in Canada the politics of my home country have become unrecognizable and increasingly puzzling, even to an academic political scientist. In 2008 Americans voted into the presidency a man whose campaign machine portrayed him in near messianic terms. Promising to reunite a polarized nation, he instead pursued divisive policies that indicated, among other things, a lack of understanding of the importance of religious freedom, especially outside the four walls of a church building. Yet his overall demeanour was presidential – almost regal – and he managed to inspire confidence with most of the electorate.

Unfortunately, his two opponents in 2008 and 2012 were less than outstanding contenders, and the results of the two elections only increased the polarization of the electorate.

This year in particular has me scratching my head, as Americans are supporting more extreme candidates in both parties.

Donald Trump has no political experience to speak of, but considerable familiarity with the dark world of rapacious capitalism, going so far as to sue an elderly widow over her house, which stood on property he coveted for one of his real estate developments. With his outrageous statements, Trump is obviously tapping into a vein of anger coursing through a certain segment of the electorate, bringing to the American scene something of the flavour of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nostalgia for a past when America was apparently greater than it is now somewhat parallels Russian wistfulness for a vanished Soviet Union.

On the Democratic side, increasing numbers of Americans support a professed democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In the past, the very word socialism was the kiss of death in a political campaign. After 1932, which represents the high water mark for a socialist party at the polls, it became tainted by at least verbal associations with German national socialism and Soviet-style communism, whose ideological illusions left scores of millions of victims in their wake.

However, Sanders’ socialism lacks the communitarian element in most socialist movements. He is something of a political loner, more resembling Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than Vladimir Lenin or even our own Thomas Mulcair. Instead Sanders is more of a Roosevelt-style New Dealer, pushing welfare state programmes that Canadians and Europeans take for granted. An independent at heart, he joined the Democratic Party only recently to run for its presidential nomination. What Sanders has been unable to explain to his supporters, however, is how a country running a $440 billion deficit and burdened by a $19 trillion debt will implement even a portion of his promises.

As I write Trump is doing better than expected in the state primary elections that have occurred thus far. On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton and Sanders are both garnering support. It is too early to say what the race will look like in November, but some pundits are sticking their necks out and predicting a contest between Trump and Clinton. Though Clinton is more of a mainstream candidate than Trump, her reputation has been sullied by controversies over her use of a private email server and her conduct as Secretary of State during the Benghazi attack in 2012. Many long-time Democrats are unenthusiastic about her candidacy.

This puts many Americans in a quandary. As a U.S. citizen, I have the right to vote by absentee ballot based on my one time residence in DuPage County, Illinois. However, after 30 years in Canada, I am becoming increasingly uneasy with doing so, as I am far removed from especially state and local issues. Moreover, the prospect of having to choose between two seriously flawed candidates makes me even more disinclined to vote this time around.

While I am at present unsure what I will do in November, I am altogether certain that I will continue to pray that the leaders of both countries will govern according to the principles of public justice. I would urge you to do the same.

This post originally appeared as David Koyzis' Principalities & Powers column in Christian Courier's 14 March 2016 issue. A Portuguese translation can be found here: Confissões de um cidadão de dupla nacionalidade.


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