A successful democracy will have a well-designed government structure and a sound political system for the election of its leaders and legislators.
A – The US Government structure, with a president, two houses of Congress, and a Supreme Court, with carefully balanced powers between them; with the further checks on centralized power by our system of federalism (with power shared between the central government and the states) and by our matchless Constitution, has proven to be the best arrangement tried to date.
The greatest internal threat to a democracy is the tendency of government to relentlessly increase in both size and scope. Democratic government does this automatically and safeguards must be built into the system to minimize this tendency.
The danger of government taking on too much is twofold. Government’s becoming too pervasive limits individual freedom and responsibility and the increasing cost will eventually become financially unsupportable.
One of the most beneficial changes in our government would be to reduce the power of the federal government relative to state and local government. Tocqueville said that one of the greatest threats to responsible liberty was centralization of administration in the national government. The more government functions that are paid for, controlled, and carried out at the lower levels the better. The tendency for the central government to control and regulate more and more economic activity and local government functions, the greater the threat to liberty and effective government. The states are the great laboratory of government and the more they are free to go their own way without adversely affecting the nations economic activity the better off we will all be. The states can prove what works and what does not without the federal government making gigantic mistakes from which it is very difficult to recover.
The bigger government becomes and the more things it tries to do, the greater the opportunity for corruption and political favoritism.
Whether a society is well off or poor depends on whether it is well or poorly governed. Bad ideology and/or morally flawed government leadership is the cause of most human misery in the modern world. A good belief system is essential to a worthwhile life and one commonly shared is essential for a worthwhile society.
An understanding of the limitations and proper roles of government is key to any well ordered government. Government has inherent limitations that are rarely understood and seldom taught. Government’s role should be limited to those things that government can do better than private industry, private associations and non governmental institutions.
See Mises, Hayek, Smith and Friedman.
Note: The likely effects of the embedded incentives should always be considered in designing government programs and policies.
B – The political system, the voting methods by which candidates are elected to public office, is of vital importance. No true democracy can function well without a critical mass of educated, intelligent and responsible citizens. To date no democracy has been truly successful without a history of the type of customs, institutions, etc. that support effective democracy.
The quality of democratic government can be enormously affected by the political/electoral arrangement. The thing to guard against in the way elections work is the potential for special groups or interests to gain too much political influence.
Countries that allow businesses to succeed more by political influence than by superior business practices are at a terrible disadvantage in competing with other countries and drastically handicap their economies and so their peoples’ standard of living. Widespread corruption, bribery and excessive political influence in business are devastating to a country’s economy.
The more government does the greater the opportunity to gain competitive advantage through political influence, and the greater the temptation for bribery and corruption.
Changes in government policy and/or regulations that make it easier for some special interest to gain an advantage should be guarded against. This is particularly important with any groups that are employed by government or dependent on government subsidy or contracts.
Allowing public employee unions to bargain collectively is fiscally unsound since they are bargaining with those who are heavily dependent on them for re-election to promote their interests against taxpayers. It creates a built in bias against controlling the cost of government and poses a serious threat to responsible stewardship of taxpayers’ funds by legislators. Politically powerful public employee unions are uniquely capable of extracting from legislators promises in the form of future benefits that are financially unsustainable.
Other than by borrowing, the only way for government to pay its employees is with the taxes it collects from those it does not employ.
It is essential to control the political activity of groups that are heavily subsidized by government. Excessive political activity by groups or organizations that are subsidized or employed by government is a threat to guard against.
If every government policy is measured against the general principles of good government, along with an analysis of where and how improper political influence has skewed government policy against the public interest, it will lead to better policy design and will better protect against poorly conceived measures gaining approval.
Care should be taken in any government initiative to avoid building in a powerful support group that makes elimination of the program nearly impossible if it proves to be destructive. Lyndon Johnson’s big idea with the War on Poverty was to design each program so as to addict a large enough constituency to prevent its termination.
It is important to understand why so many public policies that are not in the public interest are implemented and long continued, and the mechanics of how the politics behind such policies function when backed by politically powerful groups that benefit from them. Government at both the state and federal levels should undertake comprehensive examination of public employee unions’ ability to work the political system to such advantage that they threaten to financially cripple the unit of government which employs them.
Government should periodically undertake a detailed and comprehensive analysis of major government programs that have excessive costs an/or damaging effects and how they came into existence, specifically from the angle of who and what groups, with what interests in mind, were responsible for promoting them. If we know this and the justification given for the programs at inception, and measure that against their actual results, public opinion can be more easily mobilized to change or terminate them. It is important to publicize how the results have differed from the promised benefits, what the unintended consequences have been, who has been damaged by them and how damaged, as well as how much they have cost compared with the original estimate.
The methodology and the effects of various politically influential pressure groups, particularly public employee unions, trial lawyers, and those major industries that are heavily regulated should be publicized.
Allowing government assistance programs to become so widespread and pervasive that an entitlement mentality develops amongst major segments of the population leads them to become powerful voting blocks supporting those programs. When designing legislation it is important to consider the predictable human responses to various types of government actions and the consequences of those responses.
Legislation for a new social program should always include:
1) A requirement that the purpose of the program be clearly stated, that metrics for measuring the program’s success, or lack thereof, be included, and that the program be automatically discontinued if substantial progress toward its stated purposes is not made in a demonstrable fashion within a reasonable time.
2) Clear warnings about the potential destructive effects of the program (using language prepared by the legislative opponents of the program at the time of its passage) with a requirement that these be monitored and the program discontinued if such destructive effects breach a certain threshold.