ON-Lion Letter

After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got -- a republic or a monarchy?"  Franklin's response:  "A republic -- if you can keep it."

We can't keep it, argues Weekly Standard staff writer Jay Cost in his A Republic No More:  Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, newly out in paperback from Encounter Books.

A true republic privileges the common interest above the special interests.  To do this, our Constitution established an elaborate system of checks and balances that separates power among the branches of government, and places them in conflict with one another.  The Framers believed that this would keep grasping, covetous factions from acquiring enough power to dominate government.  Instead, only the people would rule.

Proper institutional design is essential to this system, according to Cost.  Each branch must manage responsibly the powers it is granted, as well as rebuke the other branches when they go astray.  This is where subsequent generations have run into trouble:  we have overloaded our government with more power than it can handle.  The Constitution's checks and balances have broken down because the institutions created in 1787 cannot exercise responsibly the powers of our sprawling, immense 21st Century government.

The result is the triumph of special interests over the common interest, Cost describes in A Republic No More.  James Madison called this factionalism.  We know it as political corruption.

Corruption today is so widespread that our government is not so much a republic, but rather a special-interest democracy, Cost concludes.  Everybody may participate, yes, but the contours of public policy depend not so much on the common good, but rather the push-and-pull of the various interest groups encamped in Washington, D.C.

Encounter Books is an activity of Encounter for Culture and Education, a nonprofit organization that is substantially supported by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.


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