Some things are ‘Practicable.’ You get better at practicable things by practicing. Playing the violin. Running. Even though in the short term practice might reduce performance and over practice may as well, in the long term, the best way to get better is to practice.
Take running. If you run five miles, and suppose that’s a lot of running at your fitness level, you can’t run well immediately after. But a few days later after rest, you can run slightly better.
Some things are ‘Accountable.’ You get better at accountable things the less you do them. Spending money. Recovering from injuries. Multitasking. The less you do whatever, the better you will be at doing the whatever when you do have to do it.
Suppose you have a checking account. You want to buy some stuff. The less stuff you buy, the more expensive stuff you can buy when you choose to.
Practicable and Accountable are two poles of a continuoum. Things are practicable or accountable not by absolute singleness of being, but rather by where they lie on the line between them.
The Authority Account
Government authority is an accountable power. The more it is exercised, the weaker it is.
Deposits or the Democratic Income
In a democracy (specifically, but maybe other systems as well), authority works like a checking account. If you want to use your authority balance to do something, you spend it. The institution exercising authority now has less. This is like money in a checking account. In a democracy (now very specifically), every election the voters make a deposit into the institution’s authority account. If the voter votes for the winner, the deposit is big. If not, the deposit is smaller. This is the influx of authority that determines the institution’s authority balance.
What’s more, there’s a level of personal reciprocity. If Alice votes for candidate Zebo and Zebo wins, Zebo has a large amount of authority over Alice. She’s somewhat committed to Zebo, and when Zebo says she’s going to raise taxes or implement new laws or any such inconvenience, Alice is somewhat more inclined to support Zebo than she might otherwise be. If Bob voted for Yanne but Zebo won, Zebo’s authority over Bob is quite as strong as Zebo’s authority over Alice but not nothing. If Charlie didn’t vote or thought her vote didn’t count, Zebo’s authority will cover her the least.
These factors hold how well Zebo is doing her job irrelevant. Zebo might be great, but Bob and Charlie are going to be less supportive than Alice holding other factors constant. Since those other factors aren’t constant, but presumably the number of voters is large, we can do statistics.
Obviously, we’re arguing about this quite vigorously in the US. But paying particular attention to the EU in comparison to the US Judiciary, we see a few institutions that receive very little popular vote deposits to their authority account. At the state level, some US judges are elected, but at the federal level, all are appointed. The Supreme Court, highest court in the US, is unelected. While Supreme Court justices are nominated and confirmed by elected people, that level of abstraction makes their authority balance less than it might be.
Look at the debate of Supreme Court legitimacy, and you find it a reflection of who nominated and who confirmed. Let’s compare to a Senator. People will spend more time talking about what the senator did or who the senator is than who elected the senator (which is often ignored), while any discussion of a Supreme Court justice will always include mention of who nominated the justice and how bipartisan their confirmation was.
Let’s also look at the Speaker of the House. The Speaker won her popular vote to the House of Representatives but not to Speakership. There was no popular election for Speakership. That was a aristocratic election among people elected to the House. And of course, people talk about who the Speaker represents and so forth far more than individual elected representatives.
These tangents are the mark of weaker authority. Other things being equal, a position which must be continuously justified and supported is weaker than one that isn’t. This is how people often attack the office of the US Presidency. They attack the election.
Again, current events being what they are, this is an ongoing big deal around here.
Deposits are unrelated to the importance or right-thinkingness of withdrawals. This is like money.
If my job pays me a hundred bucks a month (to make the math easier), that doesn’t change depending on how important, morally good, or intelligent my purchases are. Nor does it depend on the foolishness, impatience, or selfishness of my purchases. If I make $100 a month, that’s all I make whether I spend it on wine, whisky, and song or feeding the poor. Emotionally, we think these should be connected, but they’re not. Not when we’re talking about real money.
With regards to power and authority, that means the authority of an institution is limited by its democratic income. This is where the EU and the US Supreme Court face their sharpest limitations. Regardless of how well they do their duties, they have very little democratic income, and that refined and reduced by the various steps to get there. Justices on the US Supreme Court have their democratic legitimacy filtered by the President, who nominates, the Senate, that confirms, and the lesser courts, that must be traversed for an issue to arrive at the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices have comparatively little authority in their accounts because of these filters. For all that they do a good job, and I tend to think highly of them, their judgements are inherently democratically weaker than those made by elected officials.
Ursula von der Leyen never stood for a EU-wide election, and yet is somewhat the supreme executive of the EU. Her authority is one filtered and reflected by nationalist governments, who were themselves elected but not elected across all of von der Leyen’s demesne. She did stand for, and won, EU parliament, but her authority is distinct from parliament’s. Look at the issue of Chair Gate. In the popular mind and political will, she’s clearly on par with the PM yet was elected in a far less democratic fashion. She was an anointed aristocrat.
No matter what she does, she has a smaller authority balance, and yet she executes more power, does more things, than the European Parliament, the body with a far greater balance.
Recalling my point that the utility of her decisions has no bearing on the democratic income, I admit the wise/foolish dollars of income dichotomy is imperfectly applied to authority but is still applied.
With this lens we can look at Brexit and the controversy there following.
On the Brexit side, the proponents argued about taking back sovereignty. In my lens, they wanted their leaders to pay for everything with democratic income. They thought their EU leaders were writing checks their democratic income couldn’t cover, a crisis of confidence ensued, and the UK voted out.
On the Remain side, the proponents argued about exactly what decisions the EU made. They talked about membership in the single market, an institutional side-effect of the EU’s existence, the importance of travel, trade, and so forth. They argued that the EU should be allowed to buy things because those things were good things.
The first vote might have been close, but Boris Johnson’s campaign ‘Get Brexit Done’ was basically a pure Brexit election, and the people chose. We saw who won.
First, My argument isn’t one of wisdom or ‘what should be.’ My argument is one of ‘what is.’ I think the world would be a better place if conservation laws were moderated by wisdom, and that’s the promise of religion. But religion and government are different, and one of the greatest wisdoms of Christianity was a seeming offhand remark, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to the Lord what is the Lord’s.’
Second, I think John O’Sullivan is wrong. The best government isn’t that which governs least. The best government is that which governs as it has the authority to do.