Memento Mori, and Constraining of Executive Power
posted by Dave Hoffman
Clifford Ando’s book on Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire is being passed around the family lending library. It, together with a recent conference invitation, has gotten me to thinking some about the different ways that the American legal system works to constrain executive power. This may all be old hat to some, but, hey, this is just a blog entry!
The legal system offers two major methods of constraining executives: incentives and structural checks. Both approaches are formal, and to a large extent, treat subject executives as rational, wealth-maximizing, actors. Incentive-based constraints follow a fairly traditional carrots-and-sticks approach.
Corporate law relies mostly on carrots. Punishments in corporate law are rarely felt by individual Directors and officers due to the BJR and D&O Insurance. SOX is a notable, and contested, exception. By contrast, control of public sector executives (like agency heads, police, and military officers) is largely based on sticks: court marshals; public shaming, etc.
Control of the government’s chief executive is largely left to institutional constraints. President Bush, not so long ago, reminded Americans that a second-term President has a wide latitude to act in ways that might seem unpopular: “We had our accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections.” That is, elections provide limited incentives; impeachment an impractical stick. Congressional control of subpoena power is the real hammer.
The Romans had a somewhat different model. They had exceptionally few state administrators – a few thousand folks in total at the empire’s height. Those administrators were governed and constrained in a variety of ways. The preeminent, according to Ando, seems to have been socialized norms. Thus, famously, Roman generals on their victory parade were accompanied by a slave whispering in their ear: “Memento Mori.” Remember, you are mortal.
Are there interesting ways to pay-off this analogy? Perhaps we might achieve more efficient corporate and federal executive control through socializing norms of humbleness, loyalty, and self-control. Maybe this humbling function could be served by independent directors, in a reinvigorated real devil’s advocate way. Or, if we wanted to really re-engineer the system, perhaps SOX should be amended to rely less on punishment and more, as in the sexual harassment context, on a system of presumptions that encourages training and socialization of pro-social norms. In the federal government arena, perhaps we need to hire someone who will remind Presidents of the limits of their power, and the fact of their morality. Hmm. Actually, maybe those positions are filled already.