How will the Supreme Court’s decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning affect democracy?

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

When Pope Francis named 19 new cardinals to be installed in February, it underscored the efficiency of a nondemocratic government. The elevation of Les Cayes Bishop Chibly Langlois (at 55 the youngest of the appointees) from Haiti, shows how much can be done very quickly by an autocrat, in this case, to implement Francis’s agenda of ministering to the poor of the world. Bishop Langlois’ youth makes likely he will still be around and under age 80 when the time comes to vote for the next pope. All this in less than a year since Francis became the pontiff.

I likewise saw how efficient the totalitarian government of China could be in clearing the roads blocked by a landslide after a great rainstorm in 1991, when Fred and I were stranded for an extra day in the Tibetan foothills while visiting the Panda Breeding Station.

With us were Charles Brown, Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford, Malcolm Edwards, and a couple of dozen others from outside China for the occasion of the World SF meeting in Chengdu, Sichuan. The authorities were not going to let their honored guests be inconvenienced one more day than absolutely necessary!

It’s an old joke that at least Mussolini got the railroads to run on time during World War II.

Contrast this with our seemingly dysfunctional Congress in the United States where democracy rules. Well, actually we have a representative democracy, which means we have established checks and balances that are supposed to preserve the basic rights of minorities and prevent too hasty decisions from being implemented by well-meaning people who fail to see potential unintended consequences of their agendas. But for the sake of brevity, we call it “democracy” and are quite proud of it.

Democracy as we practice it is, undeniably, a much slower and more cumbersome way to reach decisions and implement change. And it’s an equally self-evident logical principle — sorry, those who want to maintain the old ways no matter what — that situations can not ever be improved without making changes. But democracy (we’ll call it that for shorthand) has one big advantage over totalitarian, top-down management. That is, when everyone can have his or her say before a decision is finally reached, the decision is likely to be fairer and last longer before it too needs to be changed. Americans don’t like having stuff shoved down our throats.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the question of whether the president has the right to make interim appointments to key positions, including judicial appointments, which in turn may lead to appointments to the Supreme Court itself. We do live in interesting times!


  1. Robert Nowall says:

    The President can make a recess appointment, lasting to the end of that session of Congress—provided Congress is in recess at the time. Congress, not the President, determines when Congress is in recess.

    The President can also make an appointment subject to the “advise and consent” of Congress—the Senate holds hearings (optional) and then the whole Senate votes on it—the usual method. These appointees can serve in their appointment pending that. I am unclear on what their pay status would be in the event of rejection.

    If you’re comparing things, you might want to look at how the totalitarian government of China reacts when the autocratic Pope appoints a Cardinal, or to any see, within their boundaries…

  2. Dan Gollub says:

    How might the system change when quantum computers can indicate the best courses of action?

  3. H. E. Parmer says:

    As a theoretical statement, I agree with you on the superiority of democratic rule. However, it’s quite possible to have a state with the trappings of democracy, which is in fact ruled by a relatively small and unaccountable group of individuals. I don’t think it’s possible any longer to argue that we haven’t travelled a long way down that road.

    Just as important as the right to vote is what you’re allowed to vote for. If a few powerful and well-connected interests can define not only the terms of the debate but the agenda, “democracy” ceases to be a meaningful description of how we order our affairs, except in the most marginal and unimportant areas.

    I’m no fan of autocrats and totalitarian rule, but an oligarchy is even worse in some respects. It might be less inclined to micro-manage its citizens’ personal lives, but it’s utterly incapable of coping with a crisis.

    Successfully coping, that is. The oligarchs can act with a high degree of unanimity when it comes to things like keeping capital gains from being taxed at the same rate as earned income. Global warming, though, not so much.

    Since it’s nearly impossible to get every center of power in the oligarchy to cooperate with the others in any positive sense, the default action in any crisis is to do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo — even if that’s what caused the crisis in the first place. (See: The Great Recession.) That usually translates into just trying to screw the lid on tighter. Which just ends up guaranteeing things will get that much worse in the long run.

  4. Virginia Allen says:

    Aristotle said there were three kinds of governance: rule by one man or kingship; rule by a small group or aristocracy; and rule by the whole polis or democracy. Each can handle the basic job of governance, but each has a corrupt version when the ruler governs for his/their own benefit: kingship becomes tyranny; aristocracy turns into oligarchy; and democracy deteriorates into mob rule.

    Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had an idea of the experiment they were attempting to discover whether “men could govern themselves,” but it was really the 14th amendment that pushed us in a new direction, something beyond Aristotle. The new thing was not democracy, but democracy with a guaranteed protection of individual rights. The balance of powers builds on the Greek notion, articulated by Aristotle as “the truth is easier to prove and more convincing.” Not just democracy, but democracy grounded in persuasion. John Stuart Mill — stimulated by de Tocqueville (and Harriet) — posed the question of when is society justified in interfering with the rights of an individual.

    Like science and peer review, a system grounded in argument and shifting the burden of proof back and forth does not ever guarantee absolute truth. It promises only that the challenge of refutation will be met with honest and deliberate attention.

    The fatal flaw in the system, of course, is that it relies ultimately on teachers of rhetoric to educate the citizenry on the basics of good argument. And that we just cannot manage.

  5. Phillip Helbig says:

    @Dan Gollub: Not at all. Even assuming that quantum computers might one day do what you are dreaming of, the problem is not knowing what the consequences of a particular action will be—the problem is deciding which one is best, which is a subjective decision.

  6. Dan Gollub says:

    Phillip: There will be widespread protests in the streets to implement the recommendations of the quantum computers.