Getting in the Gears

The story might be apocryphal. I’ve noticed that the best ones often are. But true or not, it’s still worth telling.

When I was in school, I saw an illustration that has been part of many a civics lesson: namely, the U.S. government as three gears. One toothed wheel was supposed to be the legislative branch, another was the executive branch, and the last was the courts, all of it interconnecting to make a fine machine.

Well, according to the story, someone decided to build a working model of the illustration. They created each gear as described in the drawing, brought them together exactly as shown. Then, when everything was ready, the would-be civics engineer threw the switch.

And the gears promptly jammed.

Whoever had drawn it had been better at cartooning than engineering. As shown, the parts of the “machine” did nothing but work against each other, struggling to progress a single inch.

Yeah. I’m with you. Looking at the last several years – heck, at my lifetime – the artist may have been more accurate than they intended.

The latest version of the illustration has been in the news for all to see, the grounding of the new administration’s executive order on travel. Executive orders are a pretty sweeping power, especially with the extensive bureaucracy that the U.S. has built over the years, and it’s one that has made me nervous no matter who wields it. There’s a lot of power to bypass the normal legislative process there, simply by one man saying “yes.”

But as the courts have proved, it’s not an absolute power. If even a few judges think an action has gone too far for the Constitution’s comfort, they can bring down their gavels, and the gears jam.

I’m sure it’s a frustrating thing for a president to watch. Especially for one used to a privately-held business, where the boss is the boss is the boss, with no shareholders or competing power centers to interfere with the latest initiative.

But frustrating or not, that’s the design. And it’s one with a lot of history (and no small amount of paranoia) behind it.

The Founders didn’t necessarily want a government that did nothing. They’d had a lot of that during the Articles of Confederation, to the point where the U.S was more a loose alliance of quasi-independent states than an actual nation. But they knew too well, or could visualize too clearly, what could happen if any one power center got too effective.

They knew about kings going off on their own. Or Parliaments becoming the center of action. And they certainly had their share of fears about the mob rule that could develop if the people started taking everything into their own hands.

And so, whether by fear, design, lucky chance, or all three, they built a system whose watchword was interdependence. Each piece needed the others, each had a way to stop or slow down something they didn’t like.

It doesn’t sound very efficient. And it’s not, if what you’re trying to produce is action.

But what if the machine’s meant to make something else?

This is a system that requires listening. Conversation. Negotiation. Everyone has to account for each other, no one gets to be left in a corner. When some of the sides are feeling obstreperous, it can mean that very little gets done – but over time, that inaction can prove its own cure, requiring some level of cooperation to do anything at all.

It reinforces one of the oldest political adages: “No one gets everything he wants.” Some folks can get an awful lot out of the machine, but even the best get cooled down by nervousness or jealousy or competing agendas. And sometimes, the machine seems determined to sit and rust, but as the computer engineers like to say, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. A failsafe, if you will.

It’s meant to work, without working too well.

Gears can jam. Or gears can mesh. It all depends on how well people listen, and how willing they are to account for each other.

If the answer is “not well” – then welcome to the old grind.

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