Parliament Works Better
October 16, 2009
Virtually every democracy outside the U.S. operates under a parliamentary system, and it merits transplanting to Michigan.
Previous columns have called for a unicameral legislature with two members elected in each district, each with a legislative vote equal to the share of the popular vote. In case readers view that as too timid, I propose that Michigan adopt a parliamentary system.
When then-Lieutenant Governor Jim Brickley chastised me for thinking small about America’s policy making machinery and its flaws, he said: “Our system’s antiquated. The fear of a throne drove the constitution’s framers to shackle the public will. Today, I fear the tyranny of paralysis.”
All states aped the federal model of separate powers being assigned to the two policy making branches, the executive and the legislative. Checks and balances have warded off despotism at the federal and state levels. Score one for the 18th century’s founding fathers.
As Michigan’s budgetary travails of 2007 and this year prove, separation of powers puts straitjackets on the type of change that crisis ought to impel. To divide power in these times means that stasis triumphs. Paralysis and chaos go hand in hand. Two legislative chambers that different parties control, and a governor with no experience in legislating, may make for good theater but hardly good government. In the last 60 years, voters have produced a coherent state government (in which one party controlled the governorship and both legislative chambers) for precisely eight.
Parliamentary systems join executive and legislative powers. One leader leads both and also his or her party. Ideology and political parties mean something. Change can be brisk to meet challenging times. The minority party stakes clear claims to how it would govern differently and has an opposition leader who is known to the public. At the next balloting, people have a clear choice.
No parliamentary system on earth arbitrarily denies longevity in office. It is folly to provide a government of the people with people who have little experience. Had Great Britain adopted Michigan’s draconian term limits, Sir Winston Churchill would have been put out to pasture 34 years before becoming prime minister and leading the free world to victory over Nazism.
America’s love affair with separate powers assumes strange things: a) a leader cannot be both a maker and implementer of policy; b) it is wicked to entrust the well-being of people to a coherent political party, as opposed to special interests piecemealing public policies; c) one party’s good showing at one election breeds irreversible despotism; d) cults of personality are healthier to democracy than intelligible reasoning and a coherent, guiding philosophy; and e) a bedsheet ballot of nondescript individuals defines the public will.
In stark contrast, consider a parliamentary system that produces: a) robust and seasoned thinkers who understand the making and execution of law; b) accountable leaders of parties, as opposed to unaccountable associations and lobbyists; c) elections whenever a leader loses the public’s and party’s faith and trust; d) ennobling philosophical disputes instead of du jour flaming; and e) unified but reversible law making.
America and Michigan, with divine or other providence, have been led by presidents, governors, and legislators who have tried their best. Fate has been quite charitable, given the perplexity and vices of our system. The American system has produced an FDR and Ronald Reagan, but surely Andrew Johnson was no William Gladstone and Rutherford B. Hayes no Benjamin Disraeli. It would be unfathomable for the British parliamentary system to have thrust leadership on either Johnson or Hayes.
It is inside baseball, but how politicians behave depends on the system that puts them in charge. I argue that the system, more so than its players, is at fault.
Next month: Appoint Judges
Craig Ruff is, among many things, a senior policy fellow and former president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.