In his 1815 Principles of Politics, French liberal author Benjamin Constant defended the monarch’s “right to dissolve representative assemblies.”
Constant’s position might seem surprising. Wasn’t securing the independence of parliaments from the royal will one of liberalism’s hard-won victories?
His reasoning ran as follows. The “tendency of assemblies to multiply indefinitely the number of laws” is the inevitable result of “two natural inclinations in the legislators, the need to act, and the pleasure of believing themselves necessary.” Hence it is only to be expected that legislators should “share out amongst themselves human existence, by right of conquest, in the same way as Alexander’s generals shared out the world.” The function of the monarch is to serve as a check against this tendency. This is why the political executive is customarily entrusted with the power of vetoing legislation; but, Constant maintains, the veto is not enough:
The veto is precisely a direct means of repressing the indiscreet activity of representative assemblies but, when employed too often, it irritates without disarming them. Thus dissolution is the only remedy whose effectiveness is assured.
But what ensures that the monarch will use this power beneficently rather than mischievously? Here Constant’s argument becomes less compelling: as a “neutral power” rather than an “active power,” the monarch has, or should have, only the power to restrain the actions of other parts of the government, but no power to initiate action himself; as a “being apart at the summit of the pyramid,” the monarch floats serenely above the fray rather than becoming involved in partisanship, and serves only to mediate among the different branches of government.
Sounds nice, but how is this to be guaranteed? Despite the tendency among some libertarians nowadays to romanticise monarchy, this is scarcely how the institution has actually worked in history: monarchs have frequently become embroiled in faction, siding with one group against another. Thus while Constant has described the problem brilliantly, his solution is unconvincing.
What Constant neglects to take into account is a principle stressed by Isabel Paterson in her 1943 libertarian classic The God of the Machine: a constitutional function must be assigned to an agency capable of fulfilling that function. (As Aristotle put it, a form can be realised only in suitable matter; one cannot make a saw out of wool.) Paterson and Constant would agree that the mechanism of government requires a brake; but has Constant assigned the braking function to an agency well-suited to exercise it?
The monarch is but a forked animal like the rest of us, with no power of his own to compel the other branches of government to do or refrain from anything; what power he has comes from the willingness of others to support him. Hence the monarch must of necessity be involved in factions; if he were to float serenely above them as Constant recommends, he would be like a mere cork bobbing on the waves, with no power to direct events. Monarchs are not Kryptonians; they cannot rule by their own personal might, and so must rule by patronage. In his Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (read it online or buy it), Étienne de la Boétie described the process well:
It is not the troops on horseback, it is not the companies afoot, it is not arms that defend the tyrant. This does not seem credible on first thought, but it is nevertheless true that there are only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleausres, panders to his lusts, and sharers in his plunders. These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs. The six have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do what they have accomplished with their tyrant. The six hundred maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last except under the shadow of the six hundred, nor be exempt from law and punishment except through their influence. … And whoever is pleased to unwind the skein will observe that not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.
In light of La Boétie’s analysis, Constant’s ideal monarch turns out to resemble the Randian fantasy of government as a reliable, impersonal robot. The braking function cannot be assigned to the monarch, because a monarch must either participate in faction or remain aloof; but if he remains aloof he lacks the power to serve as a brake, while if he participates in faction he cannot brake the activities he is simultaneously abetting.
Paterson argues that the braking function should be assigned to the people at large. Dispersed and disorganised, the masses cannot realistically exercise the power of initiating action; hence Paterson’s rejection of democracy. But the masses do have the power to block governmental action by refusing to cooperate, and so the function of “mass inertia veto” is properly vested in them:
The property of mass is inertia. In politics, inertia is the veto. A function or factor can only be found where it is. No plan or edict can establish it where it is not. … [In the Roman Republic] the tribunes of the people [were] invested with the formal veto power. … At one time, the tribunes of the people ‘stopped the whole machine of government’ for a number of years, refusing to approve and thus permit any act of government whatever … until their grievances were redressed. They were able to do so because the power they exercised did inhere in the body they represented. It was there. If the people will not move the government cannot act. Though laws are passed and orders given, if mass inertia is found opposed, the laws and orders will not be carried out. … [T]he function of mass, which is taken for granted by mechanical engineers, and usually ignored by political theorists, was understood by the Romans. They used it where it belongs for stability, by attaching to it directly that part of the mechanism proper to the factor of inertia, the device to ‘cut’ the motor when necessary.
How is this “mass inertia veto” to be institutionally realised? Paterson maintains that by vesting the “power of the purse” in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Constitution ensures that the ability to cut off the fuel on which the government operates is assigned to the democratic element. The problem with this solution, however, is that congressional representatives are government functionaries, invested with the power of initiating legislative action and not merely of restraining the actions of other parts of government. With regard to the tendency of legislatures “to multiply indefinitely the number of laws,” the House of Representatives is obviously not the solution; it’s part of the problem.
One way to improve the situation would be to assign the representative assembly the sole task of blocking government power. (See my reflections on this here and here.) Then the “pleasure of believing themselves necessary” that leads assemblies nowadays to multiply laws in order to be seen as “doing something” might operate in reverse.
But it’s also worth noting that under Market Anarchism, the “masses” exercise their veto function quite naturally. As Ludwig von Mises points out in Bureaucracy (read it online or buy it), “the capitalist system of production is an economic democracy” in which “consumers are the sovereign people”; capitalists and entrepreneurs are “the people’s mandatories,” who “lose their office” if they “fail to produce, at the lowest possible cost, what the consumers are asking for.”
Under Market Anarchism, this economic democracy is simply extended to the production of “governmental” services; there is thus no need to rig up some constitutional mechanism to express the masses’ veto power, as the price system naturally embodies that power: a service provider who fails to satsify its customers will be “dissolved” as surely by the market as by Constant’s monarch. (And the fact that the masses have to pay for the services they desire also puts a check on the masses’ own power; economic democracy thus internalises the externalities associated with political democracy.)
Constant sought to locate the braking function in a monarch; Paterson, in a representative assembly. Both stratagems are unnecessary, since the braking function already exists in the place where the laws of praxeology have put it: in the sovereign consumer.