As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to give the Let’s-Make-It-Up Clause a full workout, let’s talk about something completely different: the upcoming elections. Not ours, eighteen-plus months hence—the Brits’. The campaign over there has been under way, in a serious fashion, for six weeks or so; it’ll be over in less than another fortnight.
The rather more compressed time frame of elections over there suggests (to anyone except campaign consultants and “democracy” enthusiasts) that Britain’s parliamentary system is superior to our presidential-plus-primary system, at least on this margin. The question whether parliamentary government is generally better has been the staple of a vast body of literature—including, recently, my colleague Francis H. Buckley’s emphatic defense of his native Canada’s parliamentary system.
“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way, it ran a hundred years to the day?” If you haven’t, you’ve missed one of the most amusing poems of the nineteenth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s splendid satire of the American constitution. Shays or carriages break down, said Holmes, when one joint is stronger than the next. “There’s always somewhere a weakest spot, … and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt / A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out.” And so the Deacon built a carriage that wouldn’t break down because each part was a strong as the rest. On and on the carriage went, until 100 years from the day it was made it all turned into dust. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay, logic is logic, that’s all I say.”
The poem was written three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the defects of a logical constitution seemed all too apparent to Holmes’ fellow Bostonians. Not that the Framers were logicians, of course. They were almost all practical politicians and simply strove to give us something better than what they had had.