November 25, 2013
The political gridlock in Washington DC gave Francis Fukuyama the opportunity to attack as unworkable one of the pillars the American democracy, namely the priciple of separation of powers . According to one of his recent articles ( republished by Courrier International) Obamacare has no real chance of success because the American political system is designed in a way that gives too much veto power to the opposition, thus depriving the Administration of real clout. He calls this “vetocracy“.
In actual fact, the crisis experienced by the American political system has very little to do with the way power is allocated within it and everything to do with the economic and social difficulties experienced since the 2008 financial crisis onwards. The spillover effect has now reached the political system, which itself cannot function in the absence of a minimal bipartisan political consensus . (no democratic system could)
Montesquieu’s principle of separation of powers and checks and balances was criticised as early as the XVIII century by, among others, the physiocrats . Their leader, Quesnay, nicknamed ” Confucius of Europe ” by his admirers, believed that ” the system of checks and balances within a government is a dismal one ” ( Quesnay, Maximes générales du guvernement économoque d’un royaume agricole). Condorcet considered that ” in matters of government ,every complication is scary” ( Réflexions sur le commerce des blés ) , and the list could go on. Undaunted, the framers of the American constitution, which served the US well for over two hundred years, adopted the principle.
To be sure, the US badly needs to extend universal medical coverage to some forty million Americans in order to be considered a truly civilised Western country. The timing of the reform does seem rather unfortunate, as the US federal deficit is one of the largest in America’s history. In truth, the US politicians lost a golden opportunity to adopt such a reform during the sixities, when the country’s economic circumstances were excellent and when the political leaders were less ideological and more pragmatic than it is the case today. In other words, Obamacare is some fifty years too late to be adopted quickly and without much resistance from vested interests.
When a democracy ceases to function the way it has been intended to, that usually happens because leading political players fail to reach consensus on major issues. It would therefore be wrong to blame the malfunctioning on the core principles – like that of the separation of powers – on which the American system has been built upon. Fukuyama even argues that the Westminster system is better equipped to prevent gridlock, although it does not seem to help David Cameron be a more powerful and/or succesful leader of Britain . Moreover, the Westminster system could lead to an ” elective dictatorship“, as the development is known among political scientists. This is exactly the outcome the American framers tried to avoid when they adopted the separation of powers principle.. Nor is the French presidential system, in which the Socialist executive has more power than the American president does and the Socialist party controls both the Parliament AND the regions, in a better position to solve the country’s economic or social problems . Unemployment in France is much higher than in the States or Germany, whilst economic growth has all but stalled. Germany, a federal state, does not seem to be affected by the way power is distributed within the system. Clearly, Fukuyama’s theoretical approach to US’s political problems is not only flawed, but it is also misleading .Florian Pantazi