Friday, October 06, 2006

Interesting Video from John McManus and JBS

A quick review of a DVD I recently watched on the plane, coming back from a conference in Montana.

It was “Overview of America,” produced by the John Birch Society and narrated by John F. McManus, President of JBS.

Mr. McManus has been President of JBS since 1991, and the organization has changed a bit from the more “in your face” tactics of the 1960s and 70s. McManus has worked for JBS for 40 years now, but his first career was electrical engineering. He still takes a careful, systems-based approach to understanding government and policy problems, and it shows in this short and well-executed video.

Don’t get me wrong; there is content here that dissenters will no doubt call “ideological.” Of course, for those people “social science” is simply whatever they happen to believe themselves, and “ideology” is what all those wrong people think. I don’t agree with everything Mr. McManus has to say here, but the systematic approach he takes, and the way he addresses issues of basic governance rather than small points of policy makes the video a very valuable tool for starting discussions.

The main claim that he makes, that there are in fact only a few viable forms of government, no matter how much we might wish it were otherwise, is both well-argued and persuasive. (Of course, I believe it myself, so persuading me wasn’t very hard!) The most stark part of the argument is likely also the most controversial: the only two forms of government that are viable in the long run are some form of totalitarian, or at least authoritarian, system or else a constitutionally limited republic. “Pure” democracies either don’t exist, or else lead quickly to Napoleon, or Stalin, Mao, or Castro. The fact that we can imagine a pure democracy is beside the point. I can imagine unicorns, but I don’t expect one to give me a ride to work.

(Overview of America, DVD and VHS, 2006; 32 mins., John Birch Society and available from American Opinion Book Services. Written and narrated by John F. McManus.)


Jacob T. Levy said...

the only two forms of government that are viable in the long run are some form of totalitarian, or at least authoritarian, system or else a constitutionally limited republic.

Mike, what can this possibly mean?

No totalitarian regime has lasted longer than 75 years.

No constitutionally limited republic has lasted more than 230 years by the most generous definition-- though I suspect the JBS doesn't think the US qualifies any longer, and there are various good arguments for not starting the U.S.' clock at 1789 (slavery, suffrage limitations, the rupture of the Civil War). Let's say that Switzerland has endured under a stable constitutional system since 1848 or so; that still leaves "constitutionally limited democracies" that have endured >100 years under a stable constitution at no more than 2.

If "authoritarian" is defined expansively enough to include almost every political system in human history, then so be it. But constitutional monarchies, theocracies, empires, aristocratic republics, city-states, and so on all have much better-established track records for longevity than do either totalitarian states or constitutional democracies, no?

Mungowitz said...

This seems to me to be a tendentious quibble, J! But you seem quite serious about it, so I must be wrong.

I don't see how authoritarian could be defined in a way that would NOT include monarchies, theocracies, and empires. So, sure, those are authoritarian. I don't know where the line is between authoritarian and totalitarian; it is not a question of form of government, but rather SCOPE of government powers.

And const. rep.s are a NEW idea under the sun. Since none existed before (in your view) 1848, how could any POSSIBLY be older than 2006-1848=158 years?

I put it like this:

France under democracy: the Terror, the Commune, Napoleon

France under const republic: craven, psychotic, but mostly stable.

And the main point, which you concede by not even brining it up, is that Democracy sucks.

Dirty Davey said...

"Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Anonymous said...

Didn't mean for it to be tendentious. It's just that "totalitarian, or at least authoritarian," suggests to me those authoritarian states that are on a straightforward continuum with totalitarian states-- China now, maybe Franco's Spain or the Soviet Union by the 70s, or maybe modern military dictatorships. Constitutional monarchies-- and constitutional empires, such as the Holy Roman Empire or Hapsburg Empire-- aren't conventionally coded "authoritarian," and certainly don't seem to me on a simple continuum with totalitarianism.

And, yes, constitutional republics are relatively new-- but that makes me worried about being too sure that they've got lifespans that count as "the long run" for these purposes, which has to be measured in at least half-millennia.