Quotable (#17)

From 2006, H. W. Arthurs reviews William Scheuerman’s Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time:

Drawing heavily (but selectively) on the insights of Carl Schmitt – ‘Germany’s most impressive authoritarian right-wing political and legal theorist’ (xviii) – Scheuerman notes that the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are supposed not only to perform different functions but also to operate on different time horizons. Classic liberal-democratic theory contemplated, he says, that the legislature would take the long view: after protracted debate, it would enact future-oriented public policies in the form of carefully drafted laws. By contrast with the legislature’s slow procedures and future orientation, the executive is expected to act expeditiously and expediently to deal with issues in (as we would now say) real time. Finally, the judiciary – with its focus on the assessment of past conduct and on principles and rules embedded in existing codes, precedents, and statutes – would operate relatively slowly, like the legislature, but with a retrospective rather than a forward orientation. However, with the acceleration of ‘social time’ as a result of technology, capitalism, interstate competition, modernity, Weberian rationality, and other causes, it has become increasingly difficult for each branch to perform its assigned role in accordance with the temporal assumptions of classic liberal-democratic theory.

In particular, legislatures are more and more frequently asked to respond rapidly to crises of the economy, of national security and public safety – or, one might add, to ‘moral panics.’ This they typically do in two ways. The first is to abridge their deliberative procedures, which Scheuerman (borrowing from Schmitt) describes as the ‘motorization’ of parliamentary legislation. Motorization not only puts at risk the substantive quality of enacted law but detracts from the democratic character of the proceedings. The second is for the legislature to assign to the executive branch tasks that require swift (or detailed or expert or recurring) intervention. However, given that the executive must necessarily ‘learn on the job’ in order to deal with unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances as they arise, such assignments are likely to be couched in fairly open-ended language. Thus, while rapid responses are indeed enabled by this second strategy, and while, in the formal sense, they bear the legislature’s imprimatur, in practice the executive can do whatever it thinks best within the very broad guidelines laid down by statute. The result is that the legislature – because of the social acceleration of time – has, in practice, gradually devolved to the executive a considerable part of its own function: the formulation of long-term policies.

The expanding scope of executive action, in turn, invites frequent and intrusive scrutiny by the courts. While ostensibly intended to ensure that the executive has exercised its delegated discretion in accordance with its legal mandate, judicial scrutiny sometimes edges over into an assessment of the merits of the regulatory policies themselves. As a result, the judiciary also finds itself transgressing the tripartite division of powers than which – says Scheuerman – ‘no feature of liberal democracy is more fundamental’ (27).

Scheuerman acknowledges that social time will not soon decelerate of its own accord and that, if it did, we would suffer negative as well as positive consequences. He therefore is driven to consider a number of alternative responses. First, we could abandon our commitment to liberal democracy altogether …

[Option-2 is not available at this source, but I’m sure it’s good.]

(Via the excellent link rolls here.)

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