March 18, 2006
Lack-of-Property Qualifications

Seems to me we should institute a lack-of-property qualification for Congress.

Clients and Patrons

Back in the day, you had to be rich, male, and free (there were rich male slaves) to have a chance of gaining entry into the Roman Senate. The result of this explicit plutocracy was that the society’s legal and military decisions were made by its owners. Then the Roman version of supply-side economics took over, supposedly delivering appropriate shares to the clientela through the formalized, and to some extent legally required, generosity of the patron.

In a lot of ways, this system was effective. The will of the rich was generally enacted without much internal conflict, except of course in those cases where rich interests diverged. And even in those situations, there was at least an open forum for discussion available, should the disputants choose to take advantage of it. And there was, at least in theory, a method for representing the needs of the plebs.

In a lot of ways, too, this system was visible in outline in European feudalism, whose legal system was based on mutual obligations between the lord and his vassels and serfs.

Employees and Employers

These days, we have about half that contract left. Employees owe part of their lives in the contract, while employers can discharge their obligations with a check. Sometimes corporate lawyers can find ways to avoid even that. Therefore personal-injury lawyers are reviled, because they can sometimes return the favor.

The clients, in many ways, are still obligated to the patron. But the patron’s obligation is to maximize profit, which encourages exploitation, or at least maximum use, of all available resources. Including clients.

This is not a positive change for the average person; indeed, in many ways we’re witnessing a long-term surge in the power of the few as opposed to the many. This is just what one might expect to follow the end of the perception of opposition offered by the Cold War: a hubristic expansion of self-confidance, and an inability to see contradictory evidence.

A belief in the legitimacy of empire, and the illegitimacy, by consequent definition, of resistance.

What’s to Do?

Of course the best answer would probably be some utopian fantasy world in which so much was available that no one was without whatever they wanted, space travel as well as food. (Think Iain Banks’s Culture.) Where the capabilities of the society were marshalled for the purpose of enriching the common wealth.

In the real world, however, I can think of at least two possible alternatives.

Poor Congress

First, we could institute a lack-of-property qualification for Congress, to offset a couple of centuries of the effects of the opposite. According to my plan, no one who could be proven to have assets beyond their house, car, clothes, and computer would be allowed to serve, and everyone would be term-limited. Then we’d measure peoples’ net worth as they entered and left Congress, and publish the comparisons as their going-away gifts.

If the ethic could be created that integrity on the public stage required minimizing that difference, then we’d set up a situation in which members of Congress would have to be bought with promises for the future. Presumably that might include promises of employment, since actual physical ownership of assets would be traced, à la Duke Cunningham.

But promises of employment at those levels where compensation is high and effort low can be extremely attractive to a legislator, not rich to begin with nor expecting to end up that way. So perhaps the best solution would be to present departing members of Congress with a million bucks if their assets while in Congress were essentially constant from first to last after inflation. Or, hell, make it five milion. Enough so that everyone who leaves Congress without a legal cloud can be comfortable for the rest of their lives if they choose to retire from public life.

In other words, two terms and you’re out to public pasture. At least this would regularly generate new crops of millionaires.

Modern Feudalism

Second, we could go completely the other way and set up a modern feudal society, with obligations going down as well up the ladder. Just go with the whole increasing-inequality thing and see where we can ride it. There are compensations for being considered property; for instance, you have an inherent value, which a prudent owner will conserve.

Bertrand Russell said of John Locke that

He seems, in an abstract and academic way, to regret economic inequality, but he certainly does not think that it would be wise to take such measures as might prevent it. No doubt he was impressed, as all the men of his time were, by the gains to civilization that were due to rich men, chiefly as patrons of art and letters. The same attitude exists in modern America, where science and art are largely dependent upon the benefactions of the very rich. To some extent, civilization is furthered by social injustice. This fact is the basis of what is most respectable in conservatism.

See, I think there might have been some animus there. Conservatism in the US, at least, could theoretically mean conserving the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I would call such a position eminently respectable.

In practice, of course, people calling themselves conservatives are radically changing the relationship of government to citizen, bringing us closer to Orwellian visions of the intrusive Big Brother than we’ve ever been. Their saving grace, if they have one, will probably turn out to be their ineptitude.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at March 18, 2006 04:14 AM
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I've felt for some time that retiring, or term-limited, members of congress should spend two years at the lower rung of society/economy. This would insure a real dedication over the long haul toward insuring a living wage, affordable health care and housing - all those things that are so easy to overlook in the corporate political world. Of course incumbents would have to pass this law, so it will never happen while we let incumbents do as they are told by entities other than " we the people".

Posted by: david bacon on March 18, 2006 1:21 PM

My theory is that all judges should be required to spend a year in prison before being allowed to take the bench. All district attorneys should be willing to do five years immediately following election or appointment, during which time their predecessor (obviously also an ex-con) would keep the seat warm for him or her.

Posted by: Fast Eddie on March 18, 2006 3:05 PM
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