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A Libertarian Parliament
Hi,  Some folk have had difficulty accessing this content on my iblog account, so here the content is, for anyone interested:
One day I may edit it but for now it is in its original form.  Apologies to anyone wanting a quick read.
 
A libertarian Parliament.

How many parliamentary systems in the world are libertarian? Probably very few. As libertarians generally are anti-government, that is, tend to believe that government is superfluous, a libertarian parliament might seem to be an oxymoron, self contradictory.

Any thinking libertarian will acknowledge that in societies of upwards of millions to billions of people, rules are necessary. One of the simplest and most obvious need is to know which side of the road tens of millions of people must travel on every day. Each individual cannot just decide for himself. It would result in total traffic chaos on our roads. So there must be a central authority, and generally, society has opted out of sovereignties, dictatorships and other forms of autocratic government, and settled for admittedly imperfect but none the less preferable democracies, where the people are represented in a legislative body within a parliamentary system.

Probably the most democratic and therefor libertarian system is the Swiss canton system, where every law needs acceptance by all the cantons, or administrative regions, in general referendum. So why don’t we have such a system all over the world? I can’t answer for the rest of the world but at a guess I would say that it has something to do with citizen apathy, entrenched systems and vested interests, and, certainly in much of Africa, including South Africa, illiteracy and ignorance. For an electorate to vote in referendum on a proposed statute, and for that vote to have any true meaning, the voters need to be informed. It presupposes reasonable levels of literacy and numeracy of the vast mass of the electorate, and here in SA, we don’t even have that for our high school graduates and university entrants.

Other countries face similar problems and usually settle for some dual house parliamentary system where the criteria for membership of the different houses differ. In the USA, there are three arms of government, the Congress, the Judiciary and the Executive. There is nearly always tension between these three branches with each interpreting the role of themselves and the others, differently. The effect is that the executive, for example, cannot willy nilly set about an agenda that is not largely approved by the other branches, who will intercede constitutionally if they should try to do so. It is a lot more complicated than that, with terms of service differing and even within congress itself, different houses (that is the House of Representatives and the Senate) having different overlapping periods of office and criteria for appointment.

The House of Representatives has one member elected for each (say) 500 000 citizens so that a largely populated state will have many more representatives than sparsely populated states. The Senate, on the other hand, has just two members elected for each of the fifty states, and the states themselves are sovereign states and the USA is a federation of those states and each of the states has its own elected legislature. The district of Columbia (where Washington DC is) is an administrative district and is actually not the 51st state of the USA.

The UK has a different system, with a centralised parliament which took most of its powers from a centralised monarchy, but divided its powers into a lower legislative house, called the House of Commons and an upper house, called the House of Lords, together forming the legislature. The House of Lords is peopled by the peers of the realm, or aristocrats, many of whom are hereditary peers, who inherit their titles and their seat in the upper house from their parents or other family members (a nephew might inherit if no son or daughter lives, for example), and by life peers, or commoners (that is non aristocracy) who are elevated to the peerage in reward for services to the nation, or even for service to a ruling political party. The House of Commons is appointed by periodic elective competition within geographic constituencies, each constituency representing about 60 000 voters and one seat of parliament, for which candidates compete in general or by-elections.

The principle failure of both systems as I see them, is that both houses (the Lords and the Commons of the UK, and the Representatives and the Senate of the USA) are largely dominated by just a few political parties (yes, even the Lords, today), who often alienate the electorate by their propensity to represent vested interests (organised business, organised labour, particular industries (such as in the USA, the oil, automotive and armaments industries are all very powerful political players)) and by and large neglect common voter interests in favour of vested interests. In the USA, pork barrel politics (or horse trading) with local politicians pledging political support for a party or candidate, in return for Federal funding for local interests or industries, is also a prominent factor. As I said, most forms of democracy are imperfect and perhaps even the Swiss canton system has serious flaws.

Back in the 1940’s, SA had a parliamentary system largely inherited from the UK. It was a dual house system, with a legislative (lower) house, and a Senate (or upper) house. The senate was intended to be a check and balance house, as are the roles of the US Senate and the UK Lords, but were undermined in the late 40’s and 50’s by the then Nationalist government stacking senate membership with white Afrikaner sympathisers. The Nationalists needed to control both houses in order to install their apartheid policies. Had there been a largely tamper-proof upper house, perhaps institutionalised racism would not have occurred in SA, and who knows but that may have been a bad thing. At least institutionalised racism gave the world a profile to identify for or against, and mostly it identified against, and this brought about the first steps to eradicate racism in SA, that is the the fall of apartheid nationalism.

We now have to deal with the swing of the pendulum and Black African Nationalism with racism practiced this time by the black majority on the white minority. As an aside, while racism of any description is not a specific target of libertarianism, racism in a libertarian society would be an anachronism. A racist society would not be a libertarian society.

In any event, I was a pre-teen while the Nats were playing their games with the senate and with ward delimitations, entrenching their parliamentary majority by giving minuscule rural constituencies equal representation with much larger and often liberal opposition urban constituencies. So I witnessed the dismemberment of a generally adequate dual house parliamentary system and its replacement by a system which was the servant of a single political party rather than the servant of the people. Bear in mind also, that I was an immigrant from the UK and in the late 50’s and early sixties I was stoked up on anti-absolutism with Nazism, Communism and Fascism quite prominent targets of my attention, and, albeit in a less than mature manner as a young teen, I was very much aware of what the Nationalists were doing and how they were emasculating the system, and it set me to thinking, what system should we have had in place that would have prevented this? And thus was born the glimmer of my libertarian parliamentary system.

I wasn’t very concerned about how the legislature was populated so much as finding a representative upper house that would serve the interest of the people rather than the interest of political parties and their leaders. As one Amos observed, a gentleman I had an interesting conversation with on the subject of politicians, as he put it; “you need a politician like you need a dog but you must keep both on a leash”.

The manner of populating a lower house and the executive are important. In the former you want the best possible legislators while in the latter, you want the best possible administrators. But given a libertarian upper house, I believe that a libertarian legislature and executive would evolve based on that other great libertarian principle, merit.

So if statutes and regulation from the legislature and the executive kept being rejected as unwanted or inadequate in some way, then both the legislature and the executive would seek ways of becoming more competent and effective, and the most obvious way would be to appoint their members on merit. So political parties would seek to find the most competent legislators possible to represent them in parliamentary elections, and the President would seek to identify and appoint to his executive, the most effective administrators. I believe also, that the president should be directly elected by the people in an electoral process separate from that of the legislature.

But returning to my upper house. The prerequisites evolved as follows; the means of appointment should be non-party-political, the objective is to represent the widest possible cross section of the population, and they alone should have the power to accept or reject legislation or regulation on behalf of the people, they must be replaced at regular intervals so that they do not become subjected to vested interest pressures, and largely remain incorruptible.

My solution is an upper house drawn from the streets by a combination of random selection from identified sectors of society arranged into peer groups, one for each sector, so all significant age groups, occupation groups, income brackets, education brackets, cultural affiliations, regional affiliations and religious affiliations are equally represented each by a peer group, each with equal rights, and give that house the right to reject legislation for no better reason than that it doesn’t like the colour of the minister’s eyes, or doesn’t like the legislation, or it doesn’t like the cost, if that is what it feels, which house can only approve a statute or regulation by an overwhelming 80% majority of the house , and beyond which each peer group has a power of veto it can apply if it feels it is being discriminated against by a particular statute or regulation, all of this so that cabinet and parliament must successfully sell its proposals to a house which is truly representative of all the peoples of the nation.

Such a house would have something like 40 peer groups, for example, one each for men and women (and perhaps also one for bi-gendered/bi sexual persons), one each for ages 14 to 18, 19 to 25, 26 to 35, 36 to 50, 51 to 65, 65 and older, and so on, with similar distinctions for the other significant sectors of society, with 10 members for each peer group, in total about 400 members. 50% of the membership would be replaced each year so each member shall serve only two consecutive years at a time.

In South Africa, tribal society would probably be a significant sector of society, so tribal members and tribal chiefs might constitute two separate peer groups, while the various tribes or nations (for example, the Zulu, Khosa, Sotho etc) themselves would probably make up the cultural affiliation peer groups, and of course there would be a place there for persons of Afrikaner and European and Indian and Malay and San and Khoi cultural affiliations, and that is not being racist, merely acknowledging that they are all a part of our society and should all enjoy equal rights under this upper house, just as for example, males, females, the young and the elderly and the rich and the poor also enjoy those rights.

There would need to be a structure to the house, so there is need for administrators to oversee the random appointments of each new cycle of representatives, to induct them in their duties, to provide mentorship and guidance and to oversee the functioning of the house. The model envisages a Upper House Trust made up of prior members of the house and the judiciary, each serving for a maximum of six years before resigning and possibly making themselves available for re-appointment. Perhaps there should be a maximum term of service, but what better way could a retired judge serve his country?

As to support. Take for example, a 50 year old catholic, low income, poorly educated, Zulu, female, street sweeper, resident in KZN who might be selected to represent her religious, regional, cultural, gender, age, income, education, or occupational peers for a period of two years. She would be one of ten persons selected to represent whichever peer group applied (one of, not all of the possible peer groups). She may understand how government effects her life and her income and her taxes and her safety and security, and if not, she needs to be informed accordingly, but place a 100 page document in front of her, full of legalese and ask her to comment intelligently upon it without some interpretive assistance and I doubt you would get much sense from her.

Provide her with a support system of lawyers, linguists, sociologists and specialist professionals, including members of the majority and opposition parties in parliament, and members of the executive, to explain and support or oppose the bill, as they see fit, and she will be able to provide the best possible informed understanding of and opinion for the bill’s acceptance or rejection. If the supporters of the bill are unable to satisfactorily explain the bill, or otherwise convince her of its need, her response should probably be to reject the bill, on the basis that she should not subject herself to a law which she either does not understand or believes she does not need or cannot afford. And that would be fulfilling her function in the upper house. To become informed about and to render judgment on the bills placed before her, as will also all the other members of the upper house fulfill their functions.

In that way, instead of trying to educate 45 million of the population and elicit their opinions on a bill, as in a referendum, you are trying to do the same with a 400 person representative body. A not easy but none the less much more achievable task.

So how does such a house turn e a parliament whose purpose is to make laws, into a a libertarian body, whose purpose is to limit laws?

Given that the members of that upper house are there for only two years and must then return to the streets, to be replaced by a new intake of ordinary citizens, and given that they will do so with perhaps a modest pension (after only two years of service) and perhaps with a greater insight into society and government and probably with ambitions to be other than the street sweeper (or whatever) that entered parliament’s service, they are going to have to live with the decisions of their time in parliament, without any sheltering privileges. Who under those circumstances is going to vote for a bill that delivers none or only marginal advantages, perhaps delivers advantages to only a few already advantaged individuals, but certainly delivers cost to all? No one that I know of would ever do that. Instead they will reject such bills in droves.

I am convinced, for example, that few of the bills before our present parliament would be passed by such an upper house, because they seek to dis empower the many and empower the few, deliver no advantages but load the cost of government. I also believe that had such an upper house existed in 1948, when the Nationalists came to power, none of the apartheid legislation that made South Africa the pariah of the world would ever have been enacted, and that South Africa would have been a very different society indeed. Such an upper house of parliament would also fulfill other tenets of libertarianism. It would empower and liberate not only the people of South Africa, but it would certainly empower and liberate all those who passed through its halls and served it. They would never leave it with the same world view with which they entered it.

Then there is the question of how much to pay whom. An attorney serves for two years, a clerk serves for two years, a street sweeper serves for two years. Do they get a differential pay scale or the same? You are unlikely to attract an attorney on the scale of a street sweeper, so you need to pay at the rate of an attorney, or at least at the rate of a normal parliamentarian. That may be fair to the attorney but Is it fair on the street sweeper when he returns to his street sweeping income? Perhaps the normal pay should be guaranteed and the balance up to a parliamentarian’s salary should contribute to a pension or a trust fund.

And did I hear something about cost? Well, who said that democracy was cheap? You want cheap? Go get yourself a life-time dictator and use the ballot boxes as fire wood. Then start counting the cost to society!

I believe it is not too late for a libertarian parliament to happen in the present and the future. Constituents around the world are becoming increasingly disenchanted with their parliamentary systems and the same old same old delivered up by the principle political parties of their societies. But to do so in SA one needs a 66 and 2/3rds % constitutional majority in parliament. And that depends on the will of the people, which in turn depends on their knowledge that there are alternatives available to them if they wish to reach out and take hold of them, and this in a society in which a large proportion are functionally illiterate and innumerate. The problem really is to get to enough people and interest them in those alternatives because incumbent governments are not likely to hand any of this to their people on a platter.

This blog is in process.
4th September 2007

 
John, 

How many parliamentary systems in the world are libertarian? Probably very few.. is there any??

i would like to know your views on

How do you suggest sustainability of the libertarian parliament?Let me explain, India(politically, it denies civil war with Hyderabad state) and US both has fought civil war to make a case of united strong nation, well it's justified by many, opposed by some. In recent time there are few developments to clip the wings of civil and personal liberties in both of the world's major democracies, now also it's justified by many and opposed by some. If solution is, according to you what I've understood, reflective merit based representation in parliament, then it can be done now also. How will it stop the invasion of civil and personal liberties??Also, I think most of the democracies have provision in constitution for issuing referendum. If it's matter of sincerity from government branches then any one can get to the federal judiciary, file the case or by peaceful protest can ask government to consider issuing referendum. How will it ensure that it will not fuel race,wealth and other discriminations..

"Libertarianism" word has visual perception of less military, or weak nation. This fear and effect of being a weak nation is justified, and personally i got it confirmed after reading a book "the incredible human journey by Dr. Alice Roberts". The world was liberated a long before we started colonizing the planet. In few thousand years a lot of unique cultures,their traditions, heritage, life were lost, they were unable to defend themselves. Problem with local or national libertarianism concept is, it may bring people of one nation together, make them safe, but not all the people from the rest of the world. I acknowledge that by using this argument trigger-happy right wingers have made both the case and success. But if libertarianism doesn't ensure solid security, it's not going to be successful. According to me libertarianism is like infant  or caring elderly which needs to be protected without patronizing, so that no douche-bag can take them for a ride.

I've one funny suggestion, to teach libertarianism as a religion. Religion has convinced me that(I am confirm nonconformist, i equally hate listening arguments and stories from both atheists and  religious pricks) it's easy to convince majority of the people that they are safe and no one is exploiting them..
Books Discussed
Incredible Human Journey
by Alice Roberts


In response to hardik mehta
Hi Hardik,

A Libertarian parliamentary system as I envisaged it would be inclined to legislate minimally.  That is not to say that it would not legislate, have a central government and a functional and effective defense system. 
 
Britain is not a libertarian society as I understand libertarianism but Hitler's dreams of a Teutonic uber-race threatened what all of Britain cherished, the freedom to be British.  Ok, there was Churchill, cometh the man and all that, but most of Britain united in that one goal, to overthrow Hitler.  I suggest that if a libertarian society evolved such that all in it had the sort of freedom that libertarians dream of, and it was threatened by a similar Reich-like ambition, wherever that came from, I think you would find those libertarians uniting as one to kick the rascal out.  Try and take my freedom from me and that is when  I really get peeved.  Think of an angry rattlesnake.  Think of a nation full of angry rattlesnakes and you might get the picture.  You see, libertarianism is not about 'ooh please don't tread on my toes', it is more about 'tread on my toes if you dare and be damned if you do'.
 
My parliamentary model is like having a mini referendum on every issue that goes before parliament.  Imagine, by contrast, having a general referendum in India on even one issue, let alone for every issue.
 
If civil society have the final say on what laws are imposed on civil society (which is what this upper house is about), laws which endanger civil and personal liberties will be rejected.  That is the function of the upper house, to act in the collective best interests of its members - that is - of civil society, as apposed to the interests of the establishment as represented by vested interests and the oligarchs, which is the present situation in most of the world.
 
And no, I don't think that a libertarian parliament exists anywhere in the world.  The closest to it is the Swiss Canton System but it is still a far cry from a libertarian system.  Historically, I have come across references to societies ruled by the people coming together in general assembly.  These systems have generally worked until subverted by those with political ambition and visions of grandeur.  That does not mean that libertarianism is impossible just that there are those who would want to convince everyone that it was impossible or impractical.  Well, I've dreamed up a way, imperfect as it may be, of making libertarianism possible and practical, at least at an assembly level.

To teach libertarianism as a philosophy rather than a religion might just work.  Libertarianism is about empowerment of the self and of others, so everyone can interact as equals.  Philosophy is about the acquisition of knowledge of the world and the cosmos.  There is a connection, I believe, between knowledge as sought by philosophers and empowerment as sought by libertarians.  After all, they say, arguably, that knowledge is power.  The corollary is that if you wish to control a nation, keep its people ignorant, dependent and submissive.  This is the antithesis of libertarianism.  Religion is about faith and smoke and mirrors.  Philosophy is about reality and clarity of vision.  Not that all philosophers display those qualities but then it could be argued that philosophers who do not seek reality and clarity of vision are not very good philosophers.

How about you structure your version of an Indian Libertarian Parliamentary upper house, after my model, that could work for India.  Just as an exercise.

In response to hardik mehta
Hi Hardik, 
 
An interesting article on Indian democracy in practice.
 
http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/why-nris-are-also-nvis-non-voting-indians/?src=twrhp
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