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Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Over my dead body!"

Oh, this is flattering! In his column last Sunday in the New York Times, Nobel Prize winner (Economics), Paul Krugman compared the current level of functioning in the United States Congress to that of the Polish Sejm two centuries ago. It's a disturbing picture. And too true to be good. This gives me the excuse to offer a little history lesson and another insight into the Polish psyche. And perhaps, while we're at it, a glimpse into our own. It's all about the "No." As the Polish nation began to come together, as early as the Jagiellonian dynasty in 1264, a basic Jewish Charter was established to promote Jewish trade within Polish lands and by 1515, King Sigismund I extended the policy to promote Jewish settlements and a policy of tolerance toward Jews throughout the realm. This was at a time when Jews where being pushed out and persecuted throughout western Europe and squeezed into a vise that narrowed their options for freedom, promoting Jewish culture and religion, and for making their livelihood. The Jewish communities within Poland were gathered under an elected tribunal of rabbis that administered their own affairs as an almost semi-autonomous state within the state. (This is not particularly relevant to the argument at hand, I just wanted to throw it in because it is a little known part of history, which does cast a certain, different light on the history of Poland and Jewry. But anyway, I digress.) This came at a time when Poland was already on the path to a Constitutional Monarchy, one of the first in the world. Poland had a bicameral parliament, sejm, by 1497, comprised of nobility. The Catholic bishops and the Papal authorities wielded considerable power as well. Skip twenty chapters of dense Polish history, names, dates, wars, schemes, intrigues.... Oh, my goodness, this is all so complicated. There will not be a test later. Poland was one of the first nations to see the emergence of a powerful parliamentary system. The members of this parliament were the Polish nobility. A very powerful class. They pushed, they pulled, they took land back from the burghers, they cut deals with the Jewish merchant and guild classes. They adopted an attitude and a lifestyle of entitlement, and, of course, privilege. The Polish nobility was numerous by European standards. 25,000 noble families, altogether about 500,000 persons, represented as much as 6.6 per cent of Poland's total population. At the same time, for example, France's nobility comprised only one per cent of its population, and England's nobility was only two per cent. [Clearly, the Poles were more noble than anyone else!] They were a closed estate, their privileges protected by a labyrinth of detailed laws. They controlled their own destiny and that of everyone else in the Polish republic of roughly 7.5 million. They governed according to "their private inclinations." Nice gig if you can manage it. Well, these nobles felt so entitled and empowered that they were at pains to preserve the power of every single one of their caste. Which is to say, nobody wanted to allow anything to happen that they themselves would not benefit from. "If it's not good for me, it's not good for Poland." Or, at the very least, it's not going to happen. Poles may be the world's most notable idealists. By 1652, they enacted procedures that assured the Sejm would act always in unanimity. That's right. Can you imagine? They proceeded from the notion that no law could be enforced if it had not been made by unanimous consent. They wanted to avoid the chaos that comes from conflict. They strove to create harmony in their civic life. And, anyway, if a policy did not have universal consent, if it could not be convincing to everyone eligible to decide, then it must not be worthy of adoption. Yes, idealism. Indeed. My mind, which ranges toward cynicism on occasion (okay, often, when it comes to matters of the administration and distribution of power), wonders if there wasn't also an element of "over my dead body" that prompted the Sejm to give veto power to all of its members. "If I don't want it, it ain't happening." "If it's not good for me, it's not good for Poland." Kind of the reverse of the old adage, "what's good for GM is good for America." What isn't in my best interest isn't going to happen. The motivations for this policy, such as we are privvy to them, seem high-minded, if naive. But it created chaos. Eventually. Nothing got done because, surprise! the nobles did not all agree. They used the "Liberum Veto" for matters large and small. Petty and churlish. And the country stalled out. Okay, that's simplistic. But you didn't sign on for Polish History 440, the graduate seminar, after all. The point is that a lovely concept degenerated into misuse and selfish, mean-spirited, vindictive obstructionism. That pesky human nature at work once again. Now, read Paul Krugman. Sound familiar? It happens everywhere. In families, school boards, sewage oversight committees, country clubs and quilting groups. And even in churches. Striving for consensus is one thing, a noble thing. But giving veto power to the churlish, ignorant or paranoid is always a bad idea. As Krugman points out, Poland disintegrated and disappeared, degenerated into chaos, became ungovernable and vulnerable to the predatory intentions of its neighbors. Respect for bound conscience is one thing. "Liberum veto" is another. Concern for consensus is great. But the petty don't deserve to win.