Sunday, February 21, 2010

Parliament v. Congress

Increasingly, I find the political institutions and organizations of the UK more interesting, attractive and, most importantly, more functional than those of the US. Among other things, I believe the UK's institution of parliamentary supremacy takes democracy more seriously than the US institution of limited and judicially-supervised (sometimes, judicially-truncated) legislative authority, at seemingly low cost, and possibly even net gain, to social welfare. I have written about this institutional distinction, in the specific context of property rights, in  a 2007 article in the Supreme Court Economic Review (an ungated, pre-publication version of that article can be read here).

Today, I am considering another phenomenon of Parliament that seems to have few parallels in the US Congress, at least since Daniel Patrick Moynihan's retirement from the Senate: the existence or non-existence of scholarly legislators, who write books not just as about themselves and their political "philosophies" as campaign tools, but real, high quality political histories and biographies. Churchill's many works immediately spring to mind, not just because of his fame but because of his great mind and the sheer quality of his use of the English language. But Churchill is only the most famous example, and not nearly the most recent, of scholar-parliamentarians. Others include Roy Jenkins, who has written impressive biographies of other famous parliamentarians, including Churchill and Gladstone. As recently as 2005, former Conservative Party leader, and still an MP, William Hague wrote an award-winning biography of William Pitt the Younger (Knopf 2005).

It's difficult to imagine any current member of the US Congress who might be capable of such an intellectual feat. Indeed, any member of Congress, particularly a Republican, who had the temerity, let alone the talent, to write such a book would likely be labeled an "elitist egg-head," and subject to withering political attacks for their detachment from the "real problems" facing the American people.

The US Congress has had its share (perhaps more than its share) of esteemed scholars since the founding, ranging from James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (not to mention Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who were real scholars, but never members of Congress). But the label "scholar-legislator" seems to have become all but extinct in the modern era.

Is there something about the institutional structure of government in the UK, but not the US, that facilitates the active participation in government of real scholars?

By the way, I would not presume that scholar-legislators are necessarily better, or make better policy, than non-scholar-legislators. I just find interesting the phenomenon (if I'm right that it is a phenomenon) that the UK's governmental institutions, far more than US institutions, encourage scholars to participate in government (at least, they do not seem to discourage it).

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