18 March 2007

How Free is the USA?

The latest "big thing" is how President George W. Bush has sacked some US Attorneys. Maybe he sacked them in order to let the others know that they had better be zealous in investigating and prosecuting possible malfeasance on the part of Democrats. That kind of exercise of arbitrary power makes me suspicious. It reminds me of the time President Bill Clinton sacked all the US Attorneys and replaced them with his own people. Maybe he did it to insure that certain details about that Whitewater thing would never come out.

Both men could exercise arbitrary power within certain bounds. And if they did not exercise it, then they would lose power, because their opponents would chisel away at their power in other areas. In other words, they did what they could because they had to. It's the way our system works.

They were trying to protect themselves from accusations. Had they actually broken any laws, which would validate the claims of those who sought to accuse them? Of course. So have you, if you're an American. We have so many laws, which are so complicated, that you can't know them all. Chances are, you've fallen afoul of one or more of them somehow, somewhere in your life. All it takes for you to find out is to enrage someone who has the resources and desire to have you investigated. We have so many laws that we are no longer a nation of laws, but of people. The only reason you have freedom of speech or action or property rights is that nobody is currently willing to make the effort to take them away from you.

It's the kind of tyranny that creeps over all democracies, one well-intentioned law, regulation, rule, or judicial opinion at a time:

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter 4, Section 6, "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear"

The counter-argument is that as our society gets more complex, we need more complicated rules to govern it. On the other hand, it is a well-known result from the science of complex systems that "Simple rules lead to complex behavior - complex rules lead to simple behavior." Too many complex rules freeze the system up. None of its parts can do much of anything.

What to do? When a computer code gets too long and unreadable, the computer scientists "re-factor" it. They look at how it is supposed to work, and, having learned from their past mistakes and new developments, re-design it and re-code it from the ground up.

We need our Congress and our regulatory agencies to re-factor government. Not just to keep making up new stuff to pile on top of the old because nobody remembers what it does anymore. And not to re-factor with laws and regulations that are even more complicated than the originals because they are written by unelected staffers who promote for their own agendas without ever coordinating with each other or even - gasp - reading each other's sections of the documents they produce.

But until that happens (and Hell freezes over, I suppose) I have a word of advice. Once anyone gets elected or appointed to any office of public power, that person must be suspect. It is in the nature of power itself in a society governed by too many small complicated rules. One in power must abuse the system to protect herself or himself from those who are abusing the system to get at them. As the old saying goes, "Politicians are like diapers. They both should be changed frequently, and for the same reason."