|Montreal, June 8, 2002 / No 105|
by Pierre Lemieux
There is a little puzzle in the changes that the ruling Parti Québécois government suggests for the provincial political system. Institutions like proportional voting and a presidential function separated from the legislative would reduce the latitude of the party in power. How can we reconcile this with the banal observation that politicians use any means available to remain in power, and actually increase their power? This puzzle admits of two solutions.
The first solution is that the world has changed: we now have a nice state; politicians have in view not their own interests as much as the general welfare. Never mind that over the whole of human history, political power has nearly always been used to further the interests of the rulers against their subjects. A new form of state has been invented in Quebec City in 1960.
Never mind that the modern nation-state has only, at best, limited the appetites of Leviathan. Never mind that total war – i.e., war using all citizens as national resources – was an invention of the modern nation-state. Never mind that, during the 20th century, states have killed an estimated 170 millions of their own subjects or citizens in genocides and civil wars (excluding world wars).
In fact, democracy has not really tamed the state. Democratic states are democratic mainly by name. Citizens vote periodically for abstruse, non-binding programs with unknown and unknowable consequences. And, at best, what is called democracy in modern parlance refers to the tyranny of the majority. As Montesquieu said in the Spirit of Laws (1748), "the power of the people has been confounded with their liberty."
The second, more realistic, solution to our puzzle is that the "constitutional" changes proposed by the ruling elite (the Parti Québécois and its clientèles) will, in fact, allow it to retain more power than it otherwise could. The "democratic" changes proposed are a second-best for power hunger statists.
The ruling elite's power is threatened by discontent and resistance. The more the state wants to be everything to everybody, the more dissatisfied both the rulers and ruled become, because nobody can get everything he wants from the loot. The more the state grows, the more the taxpayers and the regulated resist. Peaceful revolutions are tried within the system (Reagan, Thatcher, Harris, Klein) and, even when they fail (as these actually did), their possibility provides a check to ambitious statocrats.
Now, imagine that the ruling elite controlling the state could find means to prevent such peaceful revolutions, to deflect any threat to the "acquis de la révolution tranquille" – read: any threat to state power and the bribing of political clientèles. In fact, many such means have been implemented over the last few decades, and include the control of political party financing, election and referendum gag laws, the nationalization of culture, and general surveillance of the citizenry. They may not be sufficient, though.
Dangerous in the long run
Here is a better idea: Why not change the political system in such ways that, even if the dissidents did gather a plurality of the voters and got their party elected, they could not roll back the state? Make the changes they have imposed on the populace even more irreversible than they are now. This is easier than it looks like: just build new obstacles to change in the political system, make the system more conservative of the actual statism. Proportional representation meets the criterion as it leads to government by coalition, where consensus for change is often impossible to obtain. A presidential system, as far as it creates new checks and balances, has the same conservative effect.
The elite actually in power may thereby lose some of its room for manoeuvre, but it would still come out better off than if state power were fundamentally challenged. In other words, by making radical political change more difficult from now on, politicians, bureaucrats and their clienteles may lose less of their privileges. Hence, the suggested changes in the Quebec "constitution."
The main problem with this explanation is: How can such a Machiavellian plan be conceived? Isn't this some sort of crank conspiracy theory? The answer is that we don't need conspiracies to explain how politicians and bureaucrats impose plans that lead to increased state power. The whole statist system grows by itself, simply by rewarding, and selecting, politicians and bureaucrats who aim at the right targets, even not consciously.
A political system that is only flexible upwards, in terms of state power, and where new ratchets are devised each time it reaches a new plateau, is dangerous in the long run. For it means that fundamental change will be impossible to bring from within the system, when our children discover that they are living in a Brave New World, and want to get out. Another age of revolutions is in the making.
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