Govt 101: Balance of Power Redux and the Articles of Confederation

I love a good object lesson, and as it’s one of my primary methods of learning, it is also one of my primary methods of teaching. The problem with an object lesson in a bloggish setting is that it doesn’t always translate well. I’ve had family in town for most of the past week, which kept me occupied, but I also spent a fair amount of time musing on my last post here, and the fact that it didn’t come off quite as I’d hoped. It seemed as though something was missing; I return, sore puzzler and all, in hopes of adding in those missing bits.

To recap: In our last lesson I showed you two triangles, one resting on its base and one on its tip. Each was a representation of the balance of power between governments and individuals. Whoever gets the long side calls the shots, and there is no such thing as each party involved claiming a long side. Government and individual are diametrically opposed in a power struggle, so this is a contest where one side’s losses are the other side’s gains. I repeat: there is no such thing as a situation wherein both the government and the individual can maximize their respective power. FDR was fond of talking about a “third way” in which government power could expand without trampling on individual freedoms; this “third way,” like most policies FDR was fond of, was a load of malarkey.

But, like most things in this world, the balance of power is not a binary matter. It is not an all-or-nothing situation, which is why the word “balance” is in the term. I touched on this a bit last time, but I don’t think I went as in-depth with it as I ought to have, so I’ll take another swing at it here.

(I do promise you that if I get largely negative feedback about the content of my writing, I will not embark on a nationwide speaking tour in which I drone on and on, stringing together anecdotes of various degrees of honesty, in an attempt to convince you all that you’re simply too stupid to grasp the higher nature of my thinking, and should therefore just trust that I Am Correct.)

In our first Govt 101 lesson, we were introduced to a highly simplified political spectrum; the second held the aforementioned triangles. If we were to put them together, we would get something like this:

The colors purple and yellow were not just chosen because they were the colors of my first high school (though that did play a minor role) but also because they have no affiliation with either major political party.  Each color is representative of the amount of power wielded by the government (purple) or by the individual (yellow). The choice of the darker color for government was no accident either, as it is significantly easier for government to lay claim to power than individuals; and once the government has laid claim to said powers, it’s a nasty business trying to wrest them back. Think of it this way — would you rather have to paint a purple wall yellow, or a yellow wall purple? Same idea.

Of course, what we have illustrated above is an example of extremes, and as such, is not anything you’ll actually find in the real world — at least not for any significant period of time. A government that has assumed total power over its citizenry is just asking to be overthrown; while, as we discussed earlier, total lack of government is as good as an engraved invitation to a power-hungry despot. So what you largely find in the world, governmentally speaking, is a series of bottom-resting triangles with purple bases and varying degrees of yellow at the top. Why? Because government holding the balance of power is the natural order of things, and whoever controls the long end or the base of the triangle controls how much power the other party gets.

And we have once again come to the dilemma of our Founding Fathers. As British citizens, they enjoyed levels of freedom not had by, say, French subjects. English Common Law was a large source of inspiration for the Bill of Rights. The problem, though, with English Common Law was that it wasn’t exactly written down in the books, and was enforced entirely at the will of the King. Theirs was a bottom-resting government, with the yellow/purple boundary somewhere in the middle of the triangle, like so:

The Americans didn’t really have a problem with this; their problem came when King George decided to move that dividing line up the triangle, thereby increasing his own power, thereby decreasing that of the individual — all without consent of the governed.

And herein lies the problem — if the governing power is calling the shots, they don’t really have to care about the will of the governed. A wise ruler will do so anyway, or at least pretend to, if only to avoid the sort of disgruntlement that precedes revolution. But the fact remains that your degree of autonomy is entirely at the mercy of the ruling class in this, the natural order of things; and if you find yourself at the mercy of a tyrant, your options are to suck it up or commit to a war that you’re unlikely to win. Neither is terribly appealing.

After the remarkable underdog victory that was the Revolutionary War, Americans decided that they didn’t want their descendants to ever have to make that awful choice again. They wanted a system of governance in which the consent of the governed, or the will of the people, was paramount — in other words, they knew they needed to invert the natural balance of power. Their first attempt, the Articles of Confederation, looked something like this:

In order for the individual to hold the balance of power, and thereby determine how much power will be retained by the government, you have to put the whole thing on its head. The AoC was designed a bit like a stand to keep the inverted triangle from tipping over. Many Americans were understandably leery of a system in which the government had too much power, so their main branch of government was the legislative (deemed the branch most likely to be responsive to the people) shown here as a box meant to hold the triangle steady, with the stubby little executive and judicial branches serving as legislative supports.

The problem with the Articles of Confederation is that the federal government had too little power, as indicated by the Curvy Lines of Wobbliness above. The purview of the federal government under the AoC wasn’t so different from the same under the Constitution — handle national defense, international affairs, and make sure the states play nice. Unfortunately, federal power under the Articles, like British Common Law, was almost wholly enforced (or not) at the pleasure of the sovereign — in this case, the people, acting largely through their various state governments. (States wielded quite a lot of power, but they were and are much more responsive to their constituents than a federal government can be; therefore, for simplicity’s sake, I have included them in the yellow.) Sure, there were laws, but the federal government had very little ability to enforce them. It is impossible to do a job properly when you have the responsibility but not the necessary authority, and so things started to fall apart. And our Founding Fathers knew that, without an improvement upon their initial design, their grand experiment in individual sovereignty would come to a dismal and premature end.

And so they went back to the drawing board.

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