From Republic to Empire

Matthew Yglesias compares Montesquieu’s thoughts on British Parliament to the state of things today:

Meanwhile, I do think you can see an inkling of what Montesquieu is talking about in the fact that there’s a persistent impulse in the contemporary United States to say that if something is really important, we need to basically cut congress out of the loop. This probably happened first with the steady decline of congress’ war powers. But you also saw it in the way that the Treasury/Fed response to the financial crisis was shaped by an overwhelming desire to avoid the need to go back to congress, by the way that proposals for improving the operations of MedPAC all involve trying to circumvent congress, etc. Tellingly, the judgment that congress can’t handle these issues is a judgment largely shared by congress.

While this is, indeed, a troubling trend, the sheer breadth of the Federal Government makes this inevitable. Especially when coupled with the increasing power of regulatory agencies and Congress’s disinclination to take back any of their delegated powers. I don’t know that there’s a solution to this other than voting for Congressperson’s who would actually like to do their job and are willing to actually legislate. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, though.

Perhaps it is the sad truth that, as another political observer once noted:

“You sort of see these recurring themes where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kinds of issues, and threats from the outside, needing more control. A democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody’s squabbling, there’s corruption.”

Bonus points for naming the person quoted. Also, please note: it’s cheating if you paste in into Google. Ed Whelan will find out about it.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. ROB says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t Congressmen have staffs and advisors? Don’t they have the ability to call on subject matter experts if necessary?
    IF they are too lazy, incompetent, overwhelemd, or too busy trying to get reeleceted, I hope that will be considered in the next election cycle, and we’ll vote in people willing to make the effort.

  2. Pete Burgess says:

    Yes they have staffs and all sorts of “gophers.” I know one personally. He was the “senior military advisor” to a senator. This young man had never served in the military and was 25 years old. He is a great student of history, though I could see him reading a limited scope of historical accounts due to his relatively young age. I am quite fond of him as he is my son in law, but providing advice to a senator on military matters 4 years out of college with no military experience?

    Politics is almost pure patronage. Like they say with computers, “garbage in, garbage out.”

  3. Herb says:

    The author of the quote above: George Lucas!

    No…my guess is Orwell. I’m googling now to see if I’m right.

  4. Herb says:

    And I was just guessing… Wow.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that the “decline of congress’s…powers” is a poor choice of words since it mischaracterizes what has actually happened. Congress has engineered the decline in its own powers by inaction, acceptance of judicial and executive powers, and explicit delegation. Accountability is absolutely the last thing that Congressmen want.

    Nowadays Congressmen pick their constituencies rather than constituencies electing Congressmen, are elected for life, and are granted large pensions on retirement. Taking responsibility would put all of that at risk.

  6. Alex Knapp says:


    Well done!


    I completely agree with you.

  7. Brett says:

    Blame Congress. The rise of regulatory bodies was probably inevitable, due to the rise of heavily integrated national (and even international) economies, plus the need for bureaucracy in order to regulate them. Congress could play a more pro-active role in choosing the appointed leadership, but they’re lazy.

  8. ROB says:

    Congressmen should have also put up more resistance when the talk of “czars” started, as well.

  9. Bonus points for naming the person quoted. Also, please note: it’s cheating if you paste in into Google. Ed Whelan will find out about it.

    Stay classy Alex.

  10. Alex Knapp says:


    I admit it was funnier before he apologized.