The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Parliaments and the Danger of Despotism

It is not government policy, but the form of government that destroys liberty and leads to despotism. As long as the forms of republican government are in place, the people have the means to correct the result of any erroneous government policy and to protect themselves. As Jefferson pointed out, even in France before the Revolution, it was the form of government that wreaked havoc on the population.

Jefferson left little doubt that he believed the republican form of government by the people was the only way to assure the continuance of liberty.

In the Parliamentary system, popular control is, if anything, minimalized. The Parliamentary forms are designed to give the party and its leadership maximum control. Both the legislative and executive functions are not only subject to the same party discipline, they are combined in the same party leaders! Moreover, these party leaders, and especially the prime minister, who acts as head of government, are most often selected by the party, not by the people. This constitutes a withdrawal from the people of any substantial degree of involvement and control. And as Jefferson noted:

By contrast, in the United States, the people themselves interject their contol at a multitude of points. The President, who serves both as head of government and nominal leader of his party, is chosen by the people. This President serves in his own right, and he can make decisions with utter disregard to party directives or sentiments. Once in office, his only real responsibility is to the people themselves, not to his party.

The indefinite term of office that is a characteristic of Parliamentary systems is conducive to totalitarian regimes. The possibility of the head of government occupying office for life contributes towards the establishment of a dictator. Once dictators are in power and have suppressed all opposition, there remains no legal means of expelling them. What are called "rigid terms" of public service in the American system actually provide opportunities at stated intervals, usually short, for the people to revise the course of government and to expel an incumbent simply and painlessly.

It must be remembered that the Parliamentary system originated under monarchy and is the system that usually accompanies totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian systems are highly ideological, and any ideology naturally tends to assume that it has all the right answers and that all opposition should be suppressed. This is true, whether it is a political, religious, or any other kind of ideology based on an intellectual system of belief. The Parliamentary system, with its possibility of domination by an ideological party and of domination of the party itself by a single leader, with the legislative and executive powers concentrated in the hands of the party in power, with a constitution that can be changed by the majority party, with the powers of appointment to political offices throughout the country often residing in the major party -- all these and more such concentrations of powers in the hands of the few opens the door for individuals so inclined to exercise dictatorial powers, especially in a land with weak democratic traditions.

Even under the American system, individual movements based on religious or political ideology attempt to suppress their opposition. They consider that to be a legitimate way to advance their own interests, since they naturally assume those other beliefs are erroneous or even evil. There is always in any country a constant struggle against those forms of tyranny that a Parliamentary government makes easy. Thus it is that the Parliamentary system can foster those human tendencies that are inimicable to the equal rights of man.

It should come as no surprise, then, to realize that the parliamentary system is the same system that gave us Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, as well as any number of other communist and assorted despots. These men were able to assume despotic powers because of the concentration of all power in the hands of a small group or in one charismatic individual. And once in power, this concentration enabled them to subvert the few remaining democratic processes and to suppress all opposition. Apparently, the role that the parliamentary system plays in the rise of dictators has not been sufficiently explored. One thing is certain: the parliamentary system is only marginally a government of the people, and it is easily subverted from that role.

The Constitution is the weakest part of a Parliamentary system, because a party in power can revise it at will. Such constitutions usually contain a Declaration of Rights, but ordinarily the Constitution itself is established and can be changed by Parliament with a simple majority vote. And since Parliament is controlled by the majority party, it follows that the Constitution and the rights guaranteed thereunder are all at the mercy of the majority party. The majority party may not do absolutely anything they please, of course, but as Jefferson wrote:

Under Parliamentary government, there is little or no restraint that is exercised by a Constitution upon the passions of the moment that may seize a nation. In what is perceived as an emergency, individual rights can be overridden. The entire government, therefore, is less stable over time and subject to being changed by something that might in retrospect seem whimsical. In the American system, however, the arduous process of Amendment affords time for reflection and reconsideration. Mistakes can still be made (e.g., Prohibition), but passing passions (e.g., flag-burning) tend to subside before any real damage can be done.

While it is true that a parliamentary government can be put out of office almost over night with a vote of no confidence, it must be remembered that it requires a vote of the party in power itself to render that vote. In a coalition government, the possibility of such a vote is a constant threat that tends toward instability and prevents the government from taking action in any area on which the coalition is not in agreement. In some cases, this instability probably encourages the rise of a dictator who will resolve the divisions with despotic, unitary rule.

In the United States, by contrast, the executive and legislative functions are entirely separate. Even when both are controlled by members of the same party, they may find themselves in opposition. And, of course, it is possible for the two branches to be controlled by members of different parties. In every case, there is far less opportunity for a concentration of power and the tyranny that is so often a product of that concentration. Even the legislative branch is divided into two houses with essentially equal powers, and both must agree on every piece of legislation.

Every characteristic of Parliamentary Government suggests that it is government by a political party, not government of the people. It is, in truth, government controlled by the abstract ideology of a partisan political philosophy rather than by the will of the people.

Political analysts generally ignore the role of the Parliamentary system in the rise of totalitarian dictators. They ascribe that rise to other causes, thus overlooking the role of the political system itself in the rise of tyranny. But we should remember that this concern was the first thing on the minds of our Founding Fathers. They designed the American system to prevent, as much as possible, the rise of tyranny, and we can say that their efforts have been quite successful. We would be very foolish to ever give a moment's thought to abandoning our American system. To do so would be the beginning of the end of everything that America stands for.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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