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Political science: 1787 edition

Saturday, November 15th, 2014
John Francis Mercer

John Francis Mercer

[belatedly acknowledged by Lynn C. Rees]

Politics is the division of power. Or so it is axiomatic for me.

Politics is also a market in violence-backed assets, with tribute, resource flows captured and secured by violence (or the threat thereof) being the most prized. Most political activity is an attempt to win and hold tributes. Conquest can be seen as an attempt to incorporate foreign political markets in tribute into domestic markets.

As its core currency is violence, politics tends to shift power into those hands that use violent power most effectively to win tribute. Tongue in cheek, I call this the “efficient violence hypothesis”, a play on the efficient market hypothesis.

The role of influence in politics, wearing such hats as legitimization, tradition, or customs, is what constitutes most politics within a polity. Much of this is the “truck, barter, and exchange” of tribute between different networks of influence as they slither ’round each other.

Much of this strikes me as obvious. So obvious that older generations must have sensed something of the sort. In this light, I found two speeches delivered by John Francis Mercer of Maryland at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 interesting. On the subject of how legislators in the future U.S. Constitution were to be paid, Mercer said [as recorded by Little Jemmy and with my smoothing]:

Mr. Mercer: It is a first principle in political science, that wherever the rights of property are secured, an aristocracy will grow out of it. Elective governments also necessarily become aristocratic, because the rulers being few can and will draw emoluments for themselves from the many.

The governments of America will become aristocracies. They are so already. The public measures are calculated for the benefit of the Governors, not of the people. The people are dissatisfied and complain. They change their rulers, and the public measures are changed, but it is only a change of one scheme of emolument to the rulers, for another. The people gain nothing by it, but an addition of instability and uncertainty to their other evils.

Governments can only be maintained by force or influence. The executive has no force. Deprive him of influence by rendering the members of the legislature ineligible to executive offices, and he becomes a mere phantom of authority. The aristocratic part will not even let him in for a share of the plunder.

The legislature must and will be composed of wealth and abilities, and the people will be governed by a Junto. The executive ought to have a council, [composed of] members of both Houses. Without such an influence, the war will be between the aristocracy and the people. [Mercer] wished it to be between the aristocracy and the executive. Nothing else can protect the people against those speculating legislatures which are now plundering them throughout the United States.


Mr. Mercer was extremely anxious on this point. What led to the appointment of this Convention? The corruption and mutability of the legislative councils of the States. If the plan does not remedy these, it will not recommend itself; and we shall not be able in our private capacities to support and enforce it: nor will the best part of our citizens exert themselves for the purpose. It is a great mistake to suppose that the paper we are to propose will govern the United States? It is the men whom it will bring into the government and [their] interest in maintaining it that is to govern them. The paper will only mark out the mode and the form. Men are the substance and must do the business. All government must be by force or influence. It is not the King of France but 200,000 janissaries of power that govern that kingdom. There will be no such force here. Influence then must be substituted and [Mercer] would ask whether this could be done if the members of the Legislature should be ineligible to offices of state, whether such a disqualification would not determine all the most influential men to stay at home, and prefer appointments within their respective States.

The ever amusing Gouverneur Morris made a few remarks worthy of repeat:

Mr. Gouverneur Morris: Exclude the officers of the army and navy [from office], and you form a band having a different interest from and opposed to the civil power: you stimulate them to despise and reproach those “talking Lords who dare not face the foe.” Let this spirit be roused at the end of a war, before your troops shall have laid down their arms, and though the Civil authority “be entrenched in parchment to the teeth” [the officers of the army and navy] will cut their way to it. He was against rendering the members of the Legislature ineligible to [executive branch] offices. He was for rendering them eligible again after having vacated their [congressional] Seats by accepting office. Why should we not avail ourselves of their services if the people choose to give them their confidence? There can be little danger of corruption either among the people or the [State] legislatures who are to be the electors. If they say: “we see their merits, we honor the men, we choose to renew our confidence in them”, have they [the people or legislators] not a right to give them a preference; and can they be properly abridged of it?


Mr. Gouverneur Morris: [raised] the case of a war, and [what if] the citizen most capable of conducting it, happening to be a member of the Legislature> What might have been the consequence of such a regulation at the commencement, or even in the course of the late contest for our liberties?

George Washington had been a member of both the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Second Continental Congress when selected to lead the Continental Army in 1775.

Later still:

Mr. Gouverneur Morris: remarked that if the members [of the House of Representatives] were to be paid by the States it would throw an unequal burden on the distant States, which would be unjust as the [U.S. Congress] was to be a national assembly. [Mr. Gouverneur Morris] moved that the payment [of Congressional salaries] be out of the national treasury; leaving the [amount] to the discretion of the national legislature. There could be no reason to fear that they would overpay themselves.

The result of this debate?

Article I, Section 6:

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States…

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.

And a later surprise addition by Little Jemmy long after he passed into the next life.

Amendment 27:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.


To Make and Keep Peace — New Book by Angelo M. Codevilla

Monday, November 10th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]

to make and keep peace

To Make and Keep Peace, Among Ourselves and with All Nations, by Angelo M. Codevilla

Recently I had opportunity to read the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books, and in the issue was a lengthy review of Angelo Codevilla’s latest book, To Make and Keep Peace. Codevilla is no stranger to our readers (Lynn Rees here and here, Zen here and here), so I read the review and ordered the book.

Codevilla’s War: End and Means, co-authored with the late Paul Seabury, has been criticized for being dense and need of an editor. The Claremont reviewer offered that Codevilla was too brief in outlining his ideas of how to make and keep peace—so maybe, Codevilla’s “opus” (in the words of the reviewer) will be a more pleasurable read. After a quick review, the chapters appear to be short and to the point. Both former navy secretary, John Lehman and Fox News analyst/cantankerous-retired army lieutenant colonel/author Ralph Peters wrote good recommendations on the dust jacket.

This moves into my must read soon pile, and may be of interest.


The Fortieth Anniversary of Nixon’s Resignation

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Forty years ago, Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, resigned his office under threat of impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors.

He committed them.

Richard Nixon left a complicated legacy, of which I wrote last year,  on his hundredth birthday. My views have not changed much in the interim. As a statesman, Richard Nixon was an adept strategist and visionary, who would rank in the company of our greatest presidents if his crimes in Watergate did not render him an epochal failure. Worse, some of his abuses of power that drove Nixon from office are in danger of becoming normalized and institutionalized or exceeded. Nixon’s accomplishments cannot be separated from his misdeeds because we are living with the consequences of both.

Resignation of the Office of the Presidency of the United States was not provided for in the original U.S. Constitution, but was mentioned in the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967.  Characteristically, Nixon ignored the spirit of the amendment in choosing to submit his resignation to Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State and his Executive Branch subordinate, rather than to his co-equal peers, the Constitutional officers of the US Congress, as is specified in the 25th Amendment for cases of presidential disability, though not resignation.

Even in being forced from office, Nixon found a technicality to deny his political adversaries that point of satisfaction.




New E-Book from John Robb

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have been a long time fan of John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog for many years and strongly recommend his military theory book  Brave New War for anyone interested in changes in warfare in the 21st century.  If you have been following GG, you know that John’s interests have turned in recent years  from the destructive part of  Boyd’s strategic continuum (tactics-operations/grand tactics -strategy) more toward the constructive ( grand strategy – theme for vitality and growth) with increasing examination of economic, ethical, legal, cultural and moral dimensions of societal rule-sets.

John has a new E-Book out, first of a series, that lays out his thinking in this area and how we can fix what ails America.

The American Way

My new booklet, “The American Way” is now on Amazon.  

If you are wondering what is wrong with America.  This booklet provides a concise answer.  

Also, this booklet provides a way to get us back on a path towards economic progress.  

Be forewarned, this booklet is just the start.  I’ll have more concrete ways to do it in booklets to be released over the next three months.  


PS:  I’ve got a booklet on iWar coming out next month too.

John gave me a preview of the manuscript and I thoroughly endorse the direction in which he is going with The American Way. America’s economic and political problems and strategic dysfunction have epistemological and moral roots.


War on the Rocks: A New Nixon Doctrine – Strategy for a Polycentric World

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a new piece up at the excellent War on the Rocks site that is oriented towards both history and contemporary policy Some Excerpts:

A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

….Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end [....]

….China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance. [....]

….What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. [....]

Read the article in its entirety here.


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