Monday, September 9, 2013

What Do You Mean By "The Government"?

Vincent Ostrom used to ask that question all the time to Workshop speakers who made assertions about something "the government" did, failed to do, believed, asserted, etc.

In his 2006 book, Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct It), University of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson makes Vincent's point quite neatly with an anecdote from a trip he took to China:
During the week that I was there, the Congress, by joint resolution, had condemned the oppression by China of the people of Tibet. But the official spokesman for the U.S. Department of State had announced that the United States treats events in Tibet as an internal matter for the People's Republic of China, and therefore the United States had no comment on what was happening there. A Chinese scholar was justifiably confused and asked me, "What is the position of your government?" My reply was that the  United States did not have a government in the sense that his question suggested. Her Majesty, the Queen of England, might have "a government" whose policies on any given issue are instantly identifiable. We in the United States, on the other hand, have distinctly separated institutions [I would call them institutionally-created organizations] that on occasion sharply contend with one another to make declarations in the name of the United States. In this instance, Congress had one policy, the president another.
I've been enjoying Levinson's book; I am in wide agreement with his complaints about aspects of the US Constitution. But he hasn't really made the normative argument for how democratic the Constitution should be; nor has he convinced me that a constitutional convention would yield a product that is anything like what he (or I) would envision, or even a product that is marginally better than the current version.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I actively moderate comments for spam, advertisements, and abusive or offensive language.