Men are not angels

Working in the office of a Japanese Dietman and watching Japan’s “sausage-making” process has been valuable in a number of ways — many of which I have documented here one way or another — but one lesson that I have left largely unmentioned is my renewed appreciation for the American political system.

No political system is perfect, because human beings are imperfect. The label of democracy does not automatically make people and the institutions by which they govern themselves somehow more perfect than otherwise.

But that is the genius of the American political system. It is grounded in human imperfection. It’s all there in Federalist 51 by James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

It is not just checks and balances, giving the branches of government the duty to check other branches (and making it in their interest to do so) — it is a culture of accountability: oversight committees, inspectors general, auditors, ombudsmen, and even investigative journalists, who lend a hand when others fail. The existence of these mechanisms presupposes human failure. They exist because they assume that individuals will try to skirt the law, will try to abuse their power — and that without vigilance by citizens, and by organizations and individuals whose purpose is to be vigilant, the system will be subverted.

One of the things I find most regrettable about the Japanese political system is the near-total absence of a culture of accountability. Public funds disappear into private pockets. Public interests are subverted by private interests. The watchers collude with the watched, and the voters — those who should be watching the watchmen — look away in indifference or disgust instead of demanding better.

It is with great alarm, then, that I look at the latest sinister twist in the saga of Dick Cheney, who has now asserted that his office is a kind of hybrid executive-legislative body, and free from the bounds of laws that govern both branches. That is a remarkably subversive idea: a powerful fiefdom within government that is free from “external [or] internal controls on government.”

As the wreck that is the Bush administration finally comes to an end, the American people have a lot of serious thinking to do about the foundations of American constitutional order: not simply “liberty” or “democracy” or “equality,” but accountability. It is government held accountable for its actions that makes the others possible. Unaccountable government is arbitrary government, and if American constitutionalism is to survive, citizens must recognize this as being the highest ideal.

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