Octavo Dia

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Legislating from the Bench

Here's my theory: by the time a case reaches the Supreme Court, you can be sure that there is no easy answer and reasonable people will disagree.

Since the court cannot end in a tie, (and presuming the Justices are reasonable), you would expect a very close ruling. I consider a 5 to 4 ruling the gold standard of the justice system. It means that the lower courts have acquitted themselves properly.

When you find a very one-sided ruling, such as the Fourth Amendment Kentucky v. King case, with an 8 to 1 majority, you can be sure that something is broken. If it was that easy to decide, it should not have been resolved at the level of the Supreme Court.

Just like amending a constitution to allow for an extra term is an early symptom of dictatorship, a very one-sided decision is a symptom of legislating from the bench.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Preventing Praetorianism

Despite my academic background in political science, I tend to blog heavily on the economics side of things. I blame this on the much more highly developed economics blogosphere and a bloggers' tendency to feed off other blogs. With that being said, this post is pure political science.

In the later Roman Empire, emperor after emperor was enthroned and dethroned by the power of the Praetorian Guard. In poli sci, we've derived the term "praetorianism" from their behavior. The Praetorian Guard was the sole armed force in the city of Rome, which was the seat of the government. One of the fundamental definitions of a state is that it have a monopoly on the use of coercion in its territory. The Praetorian Guard discovered that, within the city which dominated the empire, they had a local monopoly of force, which was often sufficient to establish a new emperor.

Turning to the present day, when you look at the countries undergoing the Arab Spring, you see that the role of the men with guns is pivotal. If the power of coercion is centralized, the regime lives or dies by that power. Even by inaction, by not supporting the regime, the military can oust the incumbent. Libya, however, had a slightly different arrangement. The coercive power was not unified in a single organization. Though the military was predominately pro-Qaddafi, the police forces tended towards the rebels. The situation could have been reversed, with pro-Qaddafi police forces and an anti-Qaddafi military, but the result, a civil war, would have been the same. The revolution would be contested.

Therefore, though the cure may be worse than the disease, a Praetorian-style revolution can be prevented by dividing the powers of coercion so that no single force has a local monopoly of power at the seat of government.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Old Man River

So I've been half-following the story of the Mississippi flooding, and it reminded me of an article in the latest National Geographic (dead tree, no link) about Bangladesh. They breached a dike to reduce the level of the river, and the silt it deposited raised the level of the flooded area by five to six feet. I can imagine that the silt the Mississippi deposits will have an effect of the same sort. What this means for the cities, however, is that next time a flood happens, they will be, by comparison, on even lower ground. In addition to breaching the dikes, they should begin making plans for saving the city from the next flood now--before the river crests again. We won't do it, of course. Once the crisis is past it is forgotten.