Rotten Burroughs

What is in a name? From The Hudson River Bridge to The Palisades Bridge to The Fort Lee Bridge to The Columbus Bridge to The Verrazano Bridge to The George Washington Memorial Bridge and finally to simply The George Washington Bridge. And now its just Bridge-gate. As it looked in 1932 a year after it opened.

To be a civil servant in 7th century China one had to pass The Imperial  Examination. This exam was designed to identify which candidates had achieved the required academic and level and to determine who had the temperament and dedication required to serve in the Imperial Chinese government.

In 1854 the British Government adopted the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and instituted a system, The Civil Service Entrance Exam, similar to the one created by the Chinese 1,200 years earlier. The British found that the quality of the government was being diluted due to many top positions being occupied by friends and family of politicians rather than by career civil servants. The British created a clear separation between administering the country (civil servants) and the creation of policies by which the country was administered (the exclusive purview of politicians). This created a natural check-and-balance which prevented politicians from exacting influence on specific situations (put tarriffs on this and not on that) and prevented administrators from creating policy (they are not elected and therefore not necessarily representative of the people’s voice).

With this single reform political patronage became a thing of the past. Civil servants become expert in their fields, powerful advisers to politicians and resourceful caretakers of the country’s resources. Oversight parliamentary committees have full access to senior civil servants who, in turn, are legally bound to justify their compliance with the policy while complying with the law. Those same civil servants are often in their post for decades before their current cabinet minister comes to power and continue in their job for decades after they are gone. The civil service is a great example of service to one’s country without the need to be in harms way or subject to the vicissitudes of politics.  They provide continuity and stability from one administration to the next.. Could it happen here?

How would it be if the Sheriff were the most able policeman rather than the most liked? What if the circuit judges were chosen on the basis of their record rather than on how they view social issues. Imagine a world where the District Attorney pursues corrupt politicians with the same vigor if they are Democrats or Republicans. Would things be better if we had qualified candidates rather than ones with the greatest number of donors. And what if they didn’t have to stand for election, or re-election, and we paid them as civil servants and sent them to jail if they took money from wealthy interest groups. We’d call it bribery in any other domain but we call it campaign funds in politics.

I re-read the Constitution today. I like to do that every once in a while.  It states in Article II, Section 2: discussing the powers of the President:

“He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”

The framers of the Constitution could not be aware of the consequences of their actions and we find ourselves encumbered by this culture of entitlement, graft and privilege in the hands of politicians who are too easily bought and paid for.

In the British General Election of 1831 more than half of the 400 members of parliament were elected by fewer than 100 voters. The constituencies were ruled by powerful landowners who ensured all their farm tenants and laborers voted them into office or else they’d be fired. These “Rotten Burroughs” resulted in large scale disenfranchisement of the population especially in the fast growing Northern part of the country which was the new seat of British wealth and prosperity. Against their own self interest, members of parliament passed the Reform Act of 1832 which created constituencies based on population and geography and therefore created a much more representative lower house in parliament. Thomas Paine used this as one of his central arguments against the insanity of the British system.

Is modern American democracy any different than the 19th century Rotten Burroughs of Britain? When Politicians use public funds to exert personal influence and punish (or please) individual groups within their constituency are they not behaving like the landowners of Victorian times?

Will we ever see a majority of politicians vote against their self-interest and the interest of their donors and do the right thing. Perhaps, we can update the old sore leveled against the United States to read “going from barbarism to decadence and finally to civilization”.

I will continue to dream on.

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