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Are lifelong jobs and privileges compatible with modern democracies? Franck Biancheri (2005)

This kind of title sounds a bit like a topic for political science students – slightly disconnected from today’s news. In fact it is quite the contrary : this is an underlying question to a number of recent news headlines from both EU and US media. The growing criticism against the head of Italy’s Central Bank, Antonio Fazio, staying in his position despite recent scandals, is a ‘lifelong job’ case. The vivid debate in the US around the appointment by G.W. Bush of 50 years-old Mr Roberts as future president of the US Supreme Court: another ‘lifelong job’ case. The increasing questioning about EU civil servants’ judicial immunities: a ‘lifelong privilege’ case this time. Now it is clear that this topic is far from being academic. It is at the very core of the debate about rejuvenating our democratic processes, about adapting the democratic legacy of the past centuries/decades to the requirements of modern time democratic legitimacy.

Take a look at the Italian case. Here we have a central banker attacked from all sides, including from his government and from a large majority of the Italian and European banking and finance communities, because of his abnormal conduct in recent merger issues affecting Italy. This man is supposed to bring trust and confidence to his country’s finance, for the sake of his fellow Italian citizens as well as for the rest of Europe and the world. It is obvious that not only can he no longer embody these values, but on the contrary he now carries along with him a heavy load of suspicion. Though, because he has a ‘lifelong job’, nobody can force him to resign unless a very complex and difficult procedure is carried out by his own board … which he has been controlling for more than a decade. The original idea of the ‘independence of the central banker’ results in the total irresponsibility of this very individual. Obviously in this case, a ‘lifelong job’ situation goes against the very basics of democratic principles. The will of the people, even by an overwhelming majority, is blocked by one man’s will (and some of his friends’), ignoring his duty, sticking to his own interests. For Italy, this is a ‘lifelong dead-end’.

Now let’s take a look at the US case. Here ‘lifelong job’ is at odds with modern democracy requirements in another way. By appointing a 50 years old man as US Supreme Court president, the current US president, G.W. Bush, wants to directly influence his country’s legal fabric for at least 30 to 40 years. Not only is this will totally alien to the spirit of the US Constitution, but it will result in a complete denial of one or two future US generations’ command of their country’s judicial system. With this ‘pre-emptive nomination’, the present plans to reign over the future. When the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution decided to allow lifelong positions to US Supreme Court members, they surely did not have in mind that those members, let alone their president, could run the Court for three or four decades. Life expectancy in the USA at the end of the 18th century was indeed closer to 45 than to 90 years old. What we see is that the very rationale behind the original idea is being twisted, in this case not by the person holding the lifelong position, but by the person appointing to this position. Independence of a US Supreme Court judge today has to be balanced with life expectancy improvements and fast changing societies. Either the Constitution can be amended to reflect those changes (keeping the idea of long term but limiting ir in time); or the US President should integrate those changes to his own choice and prevent the risk of such multidecade-terms. Otherwise we will end up, as in Italy with the Central Banker, with a denial of democracy, in that case by depriving tomorrow’s US citizens from having a command on many issues of their daily life which will be ran by decisions coming out of the past.

Finally, let’s have a look at the growing criticism concerning EU civil servants’ lifelong judicial immunity. As the Italian case, the process required in order to put in question this lifelong privilege is unclear and under control of people who can be affected by the lifting or not of such immunity. Meanwhile it does create a new cast of citizens who, all along their life, can benefit of extra protections against the law. They indeed partially live all their life outside of the rule of law. Fundamentally such a situation runs against one of the basic requirements of democracy: equality in front of the law. And it increases the feeling among citizens that today the EU is not functioning under democratic procedures, therefore fueling people’s mood to oppose rather than support EU proposals such as the Constitution’s project.

In all three cases, one can see that lifelong positions or privileges are completely at odds with today’s requirements in terms of democratic legitimacy. They do not serve democracy. On the contrary they unserve it by breaking two of its key rules : on the one hand, the growing need for its adaptation due to fast changing societies ; on the other hand, the ancient democratic call for equality in front of the law, maybe the strongest engine ever of any democratic process. Therefore one can anticipate, as Newropeans does, that ‘lifelong positions and privileges’ are over. It is just a question of time!

Franck Biancheri, 15.09.2005

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