The Beauty of Gridlock
The November election has split the Senate, which the Democrats won by a very small majority, from the House, which the Republicans won, also by a very small majority (according to AP’s call of yesterday). The result of divided government will be gridlock, that is, as the late Justice Antonin Scalia explained, “power contradicting power.” There is a seven-minute YouTube video where he adds that Americans should “learn to love the gridlock,” because it prevents an excess of legislation. It is a feature, not a bug, of the American system of government.
That divided government protects individuals is an old (classical) liberal idea. It was echoed in Montesquieu’s 1748 book The Spirit of the Laws:
To prevent this abuse, it is necessary [that], from the very [arrangement] of things, power should be a check to power.
[French original] Pour qu’on ne puisse abuser du pouvoir, il faut que, par la disposition des choses, le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir.
More to the point, James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51:
This policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power; where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other. …
In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is, to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on the society, will admit.
What does this have to do with economics? Although economists have always been interested in the function and workings of politics, as suggested by the old term “political economy,” the contemporary school of Public Choice has provided enhanced analysis of how democratic government works in practice and how it can or cannot efficiently promote the interests of the several individuals in society (assuming that government is necessary). Two especially important books in that regard are Geoffrey Brennan and
James Buchanan, The Reason of Rules (Cambridge University Press, 1985; Liberty Fund, 2000); and the older classic of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent (University of Michigan Press, 1962; Liberty Fund, 1999). A central idea is that rational individuals will want to constrain government power with constitutional rules. Gridlock hopefully happens when a government wants to impose bans or obligations that don’t meet the consent of most citizens.
It is true that gridlock may prevent the adoption of potentially good legislation or the repeal of bad legislation, but this is still better than tyranny. As Montesquieu said,
Since a despotic government is productive of the most dreadful calamities to human nature, the very evil that restrains it is beneficial to the subject.
[French original] Comme le despotisme cause à la nature humaine des maux effroyables, le mal même qui le limite est un bien.