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Or just call it the New Obama Constitution.
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The same was true of other social entities. Perón established an industrial bank, which engaged explicitly in preferential lending. Some sectors—e.g., agricultural export—had a harder time getting loans because they did not fit his view that Argentina should disengage from Britain as much as possible. Others, especially industrialists whose plans fit with his economic nationalism, got easy terms. Especially favored were vehicles, machinery, pharmaceuticals, plastics. Tariff policy served the same ends. Within each sector, executives who showed themselves most harmonious got preferential treatment for government contracts. In sum, the partnership of management, labor, and government yielded impressive profits to the partners while impoverishing the nonpartners and disempowering all but the Perónists.
The Argentine regime of the 1940s and '50s, the echoes of which endure in our time, was possible only because it was upheld by the pseudo-religious worship of Juan Perón’s wife, Evita—a phenomenon all the more significant for being so unlikely. Only because millions of otherwise intelligent people were so emotionally addled as to importune the Vatican to declare Evita a saint could they overlook the ruin that her husband’s regime was bringing upon them. Privilege kept the regime together at the top, while enthusiasm about Juan and veneration of Evita made the unprivileged feel good about themselves.
THE INSTITUTIONAL REVOLUTIONARY PARTY (PRI) that stamped its character on Mexico from 1934 to 1990 developed out of the circumstances of the Mexican revolution of 1910, not from ideas. Nevertheless, that shape belongs to the same genus as that of the constitutions we are considering, and as such sheds further light on the nature of that genus.
For more than three decades prior to the revolution, Mexico had been ruled by the technocratic dictator Porfirio Díaz, under the forms of a U.S.-style constitution. But neither Díaz, nor his technocrats, nor the figurehead congressmen really represented the country’s increasingly antagonistic prominent citizens, some based on the land, some in industry, others in the army, all well armed. From start to finish, the revolution was about which of these claimants would be left standing, and what he would do with the others’ retinues. After nearly 14 bloody years, the winner was Plutarco Elías Calles who, having physically eliminated his opponents’ retinues, spent the next four years persecuting Christians with fire and sword. In 1934 Calles made Lázaro Cárdenas president, thinking he would be his tool, but who arrested him and pacified the country by institutionalizing the ruling party. In sum, the PRI, as it was named in 1938, was all about Mexico’s barons agreeing to share the loot in peace under any given president, while jockeying for a better share under the next one—including the labor and peasant leaders who kept their charges in line and passed the crumbs to them.
The PRI made small farmers members of the National Peasant Confederation (CNC), and enrolled wage workers, by sector, into the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). Each of these became a “sector” of the party, along with the “military sector” and the “popular sector.” The military sector was then folded into the popular one, and that effectively subdivided into interest groups both functional and geographic. That the party secured the loyalty of each group’s leaders by franchising to them the power to extort from those below their level, which power subsequent levels franchised further down in ways that we characterize as corrupt, is less interesting than the fact that the PRI’s essence is unremarkable in the modern world: Government power organizes society into groups that agree to be thus organized in exchange for the wealth that comes from privileged power over their subordinates, subject only to demonstrating loyalty to the system.
Officially anti-Christian, the PRI tried to build an official culture for Mexico that would legitimize its rule and fulfill the people’s longing for moral meaning. That culture had three components, touted on murals, in curricula, and in subsidized literature: “We are all Indians, and ours is the continuation of a glorious pre-Columbian history.” “The Gringos stole our land, try to oppress us in countless ways, but we resist them heroically.” “Unlike and against the Gringos, we are part of the world’s progressive movement, and believe that the state exists to take care of the people.” These myths, along with patronage backed by force, made modern Mexico what it is.
The European Union
THE EUROPEAN UNION uses the word harmony arguably more than any
other to describe what it is about. The ideas of Jean Monnet and
friends in the 1920s that germinated into the
1956 Treaty of Rome and eventually the EU arose out of the desire to restore some of the harmony that World War I had destroyed. It is difficult to overstate the contrast between how freely persons, goods, and ideas moved throughout Europe before 1914 and the passports and protectionism that persisted after the war. It is just as difficult to argue against the widespread sense that, prior to 1914, increased popular representation had made governments throughout Europe more bloody-minded than they had ever been. For Monnet and other heirs to the 18th-century Physiocratic tradition of Diderot, the path to peace and prosperity lay in de-emphasizing political repre sentation. If people could be habituated to treating each other as valued suppliers and customers rather than as political adversaries, then they would live in peace and prosperity once again.
World War II flattened the remaining obstacles in the way of Monnet’s vision by discrediting what was left of nationalism in Europe. By the late 1940s the need to eat and to be warm had overwhelmed all political questions except whether to align with America or with Stalin—for most, not much of a question. Moreover Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Charles de Gaulle, and Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, the principal figures of postwar Europe, advocated both siding with America and European integration. As Catholics and patriots, they envisaged a Europe of nations governed by elected representatives. Theirs would have been a chastened, wiser version of pre-1914 Europe. They supported the Treaty of Rome’s integration of European markets, sector by sector, under a European Commission, as part of a “political Europe.” Their vision failed because there was little political substance left in European hearts and minds, and no sentiment for common, purposeful political existence. Hence the technocratic work of the Commission ended up being all the Europe that’s there.
The fact that the EU deals with people’s lives technocratically does not negate the political character of the things it touches. Who is to rule over whom? Who will gain and who will lose? What kinds of activities, what sort of life do we encourage, what do we discourage, and what do we prohibit? What do we honor and what do we dishonor? What, if anything, do we kill and die to protect, or to destroy? Since 1993 the European Union’s Commission, courts, and parliament have made countless decisions about such matters as well as about the length of condoms and the specifications of lawnmowers. Their decisions about energy have made scores of billionaires, while other decisions about agriculture and fishing have put thousands out of business. Their decisions about what constitutes human rights have effectively promulgated a moral code common to Europe’s ruling class but alien to all of Europe’s nations. Nor does anyone pretend that these decisions emanate from “the people” of Europe, since perhaps the sole item concerning European affairs on which there is unanimity is that the European Union suffers from a “democratic deficit.” Lack of popular mandate notwithstanding, the EU is especially active in cultural affairs, specifically rejecting Christianity as even one among the bases for its legitimacy. The EU is very loud in affirming its own moral superiority, but this substantively empty claim moves no hearts.
Our New Foundation?
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES between the New Foundation that President Obama is instituting and the regimes of the European Union, or of 1920s Italy, PRI Mexico, or Perón’s Argentina are beside the fact that all are variants of one kind of rejection of liberal representative government. What does this rejection mean in America? Here is how it works among us.
Arguably the main American constitutional event of 2008-09 was the passage under the Bush administration, with support from future president Obama as well as from virtually all the nation’s major interest groups, of a $700 billion bill to purchase “troubled assets” from big banks. All agreed that unless the government were given this huge sum with unprecedented latitude and in a hurry, the average American would see his life’s savings disappear. By 2008 the hurried demand for large, unspecified powers under the threat of imminent disaster was no longer exceptional. The Obama administration made it the rule, and used the money to build its “New Foundation.”
The Obama team (different from its predecessor only in degree) purchased few “troubled assets.” With most of the money it bought stakes in the biggest banks, with which it leveraged them to support its political agenda, including the takeover of General Motors and Chrysler, which Obama had also made dependent on the government by lending them “troubled asset” money. Chrysler (with GM to follow) having failed financially, the Obama administration forced it to give a 55 percent stake in itself to the United Auto Workers union, a major constituent of the Democratic Party. The government took the next 30 percent, and gave the remainder to Italy’s Fiat, in exchange for management and technology. In so doing and against bedrock bankruptcy law, it gave some 43 cents on the dollar to the UAW’s unsecured interest in the company and only 28 cents to secured creditors. Meanwhile, part of the deal worked out with the favored stakeholders was that they would produce mainly small cars, with better fuel economy. But few believed that the American public would buy them. Doing this lent support to the administration’s claim of moral authority as savior of the earth from global warming. In an event that would have been unremarkable in Europe or the Third World, the Obama administration took assets from persons independent of it, transferred them to political allies, and bolstered in the popular mind the rationale for its rule.