Hubris and the republican order

Has GWB’s lack of self-restraint finally exceeding the tolerance of the rest of the political structure?

Any constitutional republic depends for its functioning on the practice of mutual self-restraint among officials, institutions, and parties. If everyone pushes his power and authority to its limits, the constitutional order can’t hold together. (That’s the Hobbesian paradox: since power can be checked only by greater power, constitutionally limited government is impossible.)

Any given individual, institution, or party can gain at least temporary advantage by exercising less self-restraint than its rivals. But that’s a risky game to play, both for the system and for the entity that chooses to push its envelope. Since an un-self-restrained power center is a threat to the entire order, the other power centers will tend to gang up against the aggressor. That, of course, is the Madisonian formula: to “let ambition check ambition.”

So a republican political culture has the tragic hubris-breeds-nemesis dynamic built in. As Richard Neustadt said of Nixon in what seemed to be the flush of his power, just after his re-election: “He has no sense of limits. He will be destroyed.”

No Administration, not even Nixon’s, has sailed closer to the wind than Bush II. That helps explain the reaction it is now facing: from the Fourth Circuit, from the FISA Court, from various parts of Capitol Hill, and even from some parts of the conservative media-intellectual complex. I make no prediction; events are inevitable only in retrospect. But I find Neustadt’s words both comforting and energizing in the current darkness.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: