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September 05, 2009


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You seem to be saying that at the institutional level, the US has plenty of veto points to protect various interests and principles, and plenty of ways to bypass them if there is general agreement that they are being abused. This makes sense.

The more interesting questions, ISTM, are at the level below that. What would prevent said general agreement from coming about?

Lack of said "general agreement", as per above. Large monolithic interest blocs?

ISTM that any one veto point can be bypassed because there are no interest groups (in a broad sense) that are large enough to monopolize a veto point or block attempts to bypass it. The diversity of interests is the key.

"Large monolithic interest blocs."

Well, that should work. But I've been trying to think of historical exmples, and haven't thought of many.

Two things to say, really.

On the one hand, the failure point of the US is more likely to be something like "The 18th century constitution simply will not scale up to a 21st century country with 300+ million inhabitants in the process of dividing themselves into tribes, each of which has their own cable channel, their own opinion leaders, their own schools and colleges, their own theme parks...essentially their own reality."

On the other, the Obama health care circus is better understood as a result of Republican weakness than most of the other things I've heard.

I'm not seeing the tribes thing generally. Evangelical Christians, /maybe/. But they're a minority, and always have been.

(I spent several days at a large kid-oriented water park recently, and was struck by the obvious diversity of the patrons -- not just ethnic, but in terms of class, origin, and interests.)

Veto points: I would say you're overfocusing on formal vetos, as opposed to a President just sitting on his thumb while the Republic goes over the edge. Note that this is very close to what happened in 1857-61. So I don't think it's inherently implausible.

Doug M.

Hi, Doug!

"I would say you're overfocusing on formal vetos." Perhaps, but the below-the-fold scenarios involved thumb-twiddling in the face of a perceived national security threat. The same thing, no?

But 1857-61 is interesting. Let's think about it for a second. Did he really diddle while American burned? I'm not sure. Consider two active decisions. He chose to get involved in Dred Scott. He then chose to support the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas. In 1860 he waffled on secession. Then again, so did Lincoln, supporting the Corwin Amendment and waiting until Fort Sumter to call out the troops.

Given his first three active blunders, what should Buchanan have done to head off the conflict?

I keep thinking of the medical analogue of possible stage-based failure modes at birth, development, stasis, senescence, degeneration, etc. At each stage, there are boilerplate vital signs pointing the way, identifying crucial "veto" situations. They´re mostly predictable, determinable, within normal bounds. Leaving aside the question of the existence of "life stages" for a political system, is it then a boundary problem, that discounts seismic events for obvious reasons? Are the boundaries shrinking or expanding, in the sense of the system becoming more shock-proof, more resilient from its own growing immunity to inborn / invasive disturbances; or are the boundaries shrinking because of growing unnoticed or unexpected factors? This boundary, how permeable does it need to be for ideal system health?

I wouldn't say Lincoln waffled on secession at all. Supporting the amendment was an attempt to prevent secession by appeasing the South. Waiting for the South to fire on Fort Sumter was brilliant; it put them in the wrong, and allowed him to tap a deep vein of outraged American nationalism.

Buchanan, on the other hand... well, here are three examples.

First, his response to the Panic of 1857 was basically 'la la la nothing is happening'. He had campaigned on a policy of lowering tariffs; he did so, even though this caused federal government revenues to crash even further than they already had. (Making the South happy was more important than balancing the budget.) The following year he allowed his Secretary of the Treasury to enter into deficit financing, but only with Congressional consent; he personally thought the whole business a damn'd silly accountants' wrangle, and had no interest in it. It's not mentioned in most histories of the ACW, but one reason the US was so ill-prepared in 1861 was that the Army and Navy had both seen fairly sharp budget cuts in the previous three years.

Second, secession. Buchanan did nothing. He insisted that secession was illegal and unconstitutional, but with the same breath claimed that he couldn't do anything about it.

Third, preparation for war, or at least suppression of rebellion. It's worth noting that with two exceptions, /every single/ US government arsenal, armory, and military base in the South fell into Confederate hands -- in most cases, with guns, ammunition, ships, cannon and equipment perfectly intact. Okay, in some cases this was unavoidable. But in many others Buchanan could have arranged to have critical equipment moved away, guns spiked, ships scuttled, etc. etc. Keep in mind that, in the Upper South, he had several months to prepare.

He did... nothing. Instead, he ordered that no resistance be made to Confederate forces. Hundreds of cannon and tens of thousands of muskets were handed over intact. Untold thousands of Union soldiers died as a result.

So I think there's a case to be made, yes. Mind, arguably a Buchanan who was a dead lump of timber would have been better than what we got. President Log would not, as you say, have stupidly inserted himself into the Dred Scott or Lecompton issues. But otherwise it would have been much of a muchness.

Doug M.

It looks like I swallowed a sentence in my comment. I mentioned "three active blunders," but only wrote about two; I counted his secession-waffling and the associated military unpreparedness as the third.

You make a good point about Buchanan. He may have done some stupid things, but President Log wouldn't have been much better.

Still, doesn't that kind of support the point? Buchanan wasn't sitting around actively stopping the other branches of government from taking action to head off the crisis. It was only at the very end, when he refused to keep federal weapons out of Confederate hands, that his ability as commander-in-chief worsened the situation. Right?

There may have been counterfactual actions that would have headed off the crisis --- and there were certainly counterfactual actions that might have made the resulting war less prolonged --- but that's a different question.

Not that I'm opposed to hearing the answer ... what should our hypothetical President Log have done to head off the Civil War?

Henry: I'm not sure, but it sounds a little bit like the ideas in The Rise and Decline of Nations, by Mancur Olson. Historical evidence pushed Olson away from the book's thesis as a sweeping capital-T Theory, but it still holds relevance for specific cases.

Or am I misunderstanding you?

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