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Checks and Balances, Part II

Ron Wolff: Here I reveal how a coalition of sub-populations cutting in an entirely different direction (connecting selected people with powerful segments of government) can become destabilizing -- possibly even undemocratic (dare I say dictatorial?).

The Balance of Power between the People and Wealthy Corporations

fat cats

Last week I discussed the balance of power between the people and the government. Here I reveal how a coalition of sub-populations cutting in an entirely different direction (connecting selected people with powerful segments of government) can become destabilizing -- possibly even undemocratic (dare I say dictatorial?).

First, I must confess that I still remember something from college physics. Trust me; this will actually be relevant.

Envision a metal object in the shape of the letter "U" with an internal groove, so that a metal ball placed inside will roll up or down but not fall off the edge. Because of gravity, the ball will inevitably settle at the bottom of the "U" unless it is disturbed by an outside force pushing it up one of the sides. However, the gravitational force will oppose the outside force, resulting in a "stable equilibrium."

Turn the "U" upside down, however, and imagine placing the ball on top, perfectly balanced so that the forces pulling to the left and the right are exactly equal. The ball will remain at rest -- until any force disturbs it. In this configuration, gravity is destabilizing; once set in motion, the ball falls precipitously, and unless something exists outside the system to remedy the situation, it falls permanently off its previously stable perch. This is an "unstable equilibrium."

While the analogy may not be perfect (they rarely are), the societal counterparts to this old physics lesson should be reasonably obvious and at least mildly instructive. The American way of life has a built-in inertia ("gravity") that tends to produce equilibrium -- at least in the long term. The principle of stare decisis formalizes this, incorporating the concept that courts (especially the Supreme Court) should not overturn previous decisions without overwhelmingly convincing rationale. Equilibrium is also evidenced by such expressions -- representing, perhaps, the "conventional wisdom" -- as "don't rock the boat" and "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." The tendency to re-elect public officials in perpetuity -- often in the face of evidence that would easily justify a change -- may also be considered relevant evidence.

So far, the system has worked fairly well. Extremism is generally not tolerated in this country, and "political mistakes" are often corrected. Witness, for example, the reversal of sedition laws (multiple times!), the eventual repudiation of legal segregation, etc.

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The question before us now is whether our system of stable equilibrium is in danger -- and I maintain that it is.

The wealthy and the powerful have and always will have a vested interest in controlling the functions of government that can either assist or hinder them. As long as a balance of power exists between these entrenched interests and the "general welfare" -- either through a sense of justice among elected officials regardless of political affiliation or through a distribution of control as a consequence of fair elections -- then a stable equilibrium will be maintained. But if the wealthy and the powerful are successful in gaining overwhelming control, along with the election machinery required to maintain that power in perpetuity, then "the people" will have only one recourse -- the decidedly destabilizing recourse of revolution.

According to the Los Angeles Times (8/2/10, p. A1), conservative organizations (thanks in part to the recent "Citizens United" decision of the Supreme Court) are preparing to spend up to $300 million on the elections that will take place this fall. Given that this money will be spent selectively in key races and that people are known to be influenced by political advertising (especially when the real source of the money is concealed), $300 million is a scary number.

Just suppose (and granted this is a worst-case scenario) that Congress eventually falls into the hands of people who lower tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations to next-to-nothing and raise tax rates on the middle and lower economic classes. Suppose further that government programs to help the poor (food assistance, for example) are dismantled, partially because they would no longer be affordable and partially because of philosophical opposition. Suppose further that the election machinery falls into the hands of partisan-oriented public officials who use their positions to influence the outcomes. (You say that already happened? Forget Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 -- old news!) Suppose further that regulatory machinery and anti-trust laws are eliminated, allowing corporations to raise prices on essential products, thereby in effect taxing (yes, I said "taxing") the common people to guarantee a continuing flow of money that would perpetuate their omnipresent, self-serving, multi-million dollar political messages.

Does this irreversible condition strike you as a recipe for disaster? But what stands in the way of it actually happening? Unfortunately -- at the moment -- not much.

Ron Wolff

Ron Wolff

Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.