Don't Settle This!

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This isn’t a nightmare. It’s a dream! What is taking place in Florida is the systematic unraveling of the much-vaunted “process” by which the government is chosen — the very moral basis on which the current despotism displaced the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the rationale by which US has imposed its will on the world for a century. What remained of US government credibility abroad is no more.

But let’s talk about the domestic implications. The best thing for this country is for the presidential election to be indefinitely in dispute. The alternative is unthinkable. Folks in Utah voted 2 to 1 for Bush, and yet if Gore were to win, these people would be forced to live under the rule of a vast regulatory and tax apparatus administered by an enemy regime. Meanwhile, more than 2,300 miles away, folks in Massachusetts voted almost as solidly for Gore. Yet if Bush wins, they will be required to live under a regulatory and tax apparatus headed by a man and a party these people despise.

The loser states can expect to be targeted for punishment, just as they have been throughout the 1990s. Moreover, most people who voted for either of the two main candidates did so because they feared a contrary outcome, not because they loved the candidate. A Bush presidency will not satisfy those fed up with paying for government “services” they don’t use, and a Gore presidency won’t satisfy those who believe government can never get too big or intrusive.

Nor should anyone accept such an outcome. It is time to ask the ultimate question: Where is the justice in either a Bush or Gore victory? There is no theory of a free society that can justify the kind of despotism that permits a few thousand votes in the state of Florida to determine the regime that rules from Hawaii and Alaska.

No matter what the result, there will be no end to the bitterness. Partisans on both sides will claim fraud and unfair manipulation until the end of time. Republicans will lie awake at night fuming about all the prison inmates the Democrats gave ballots to, and the Democrats will have the long knives out for Nader and Bush and won’t shrink from calling them every nasty name in the left-liberal handbook.

What’s more, bitterness and anger are exactly the correct emotions to feel. This whole election strikes at the very heart of humane political sensibilities.

Television pundits: don’t tell me that this is the system set up by the framers of the Constitution. It is not. There were only 13 colonies when the Constitution was ratified and the electoral college was put into place. As compared with today, those sovereign entities were united only in a love of liberty. These days, there are 50 states of radically diverse populations stretching a distance far too wide a distance to be managed by a single regime that extracts 2 trillion from the national wealth per year.

The president initially had very few powers, and the ones he did have were subject to Congressional veto. There was no regulatory apparatus. There was no income tax. The Supreme Court could not legislate for the states. The states were in charge of setting their own immigration rules.

There were no national health care plans or retirement systems. There were no centralized rules restricting the freedom of association. There was no national policy on anything but foreign policy, and, even here, there was no permanent stationing of troops outside the borders. Indeed, there was no standing army. Congress was supreme and the Senate elected by state legislatures and mostly loyal to the citizens of the states, not a mythical national constituency.

The stakes of national elections just weren’t that high. The framers’ system permitted a president (not a king), but the office was based on the idea that he would largely be a figurehead. He would have no power to impact the daily lives of the people. Impeachment was to play a huge role in American life, as even the centralist Alexander Hamilton was forced to concede.

Sure enough, in Alexis De Tocqueville’s America, the citizens had little or no contact with the federal government. It didn’t tax them, regulate their businesses, tell them whether and how they could be armed, or how they must conduct their private lives. The president’s power is “temporary, limited, and subordinate,” Tocqueville wrote. He has “little wealth, and little glory to share among his friends; and his influence in the state is too small for the success or the ruin of a faction to depend up his elevation to power…. The influence which the President exercises on public business is no doubt feeble and indirect.”

No matter who was elected, average people would go on living their lives in liberty, fearing only robbers, poverty, and hard winters, and not public agents.

Beginning in 1860 all this began to change, as summed up in Lincoln’s declaration that “I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” The states were not permitted to exit the regime, a right which many states had asserted in their original Constitutions. During the Progressive Era a new theory emerged. The idea, promoted by Woodrow Wilson, is that the president is some sort of embodiment of the Rousseauian General Will.

Since that time, we have developed the view that the American president becomes known to us only after the Holy Spirit descends over the nation and anoints a Chosen One to lead us. Our job is to submit. To question the outcome, much less to bitterly resent it, was to be unpatriotic, even to flirt with treason. All through the 1990s, the Clintons have invoked this notion of the presidency, suggesting time and again that the fact that Bill ruled was enough to establish that he should have his way in all things.

If there is any merit to the gritty and grueling process of election 2000, it is that the modern American myth of that magical and holy office of the presidency has been completely debunked, first by Clinton’s debasement of the office and now by the debasement of the voting process itself. The entire outcome hinges on the wishes of one state, one county, a few thousand people, and that will not easily be translated into an undisputed outcome, given the possibility of vote fraud and the use of outrageous get-out-the-vote tactics.

Whoever wins will not enjoy anything close to a mandate. He will preside over a deeply divided country, half of the people sick of paying the taxes and the other half believing they are entitled to ever more loot from the productive classes. This system cannot be sustained.

This country must either think new and radical thoughts about the way in which we divide power in this country, or we must restore a presidency envisioned by the framers. After the bloodbath of 2000, that is the only path to long-term social peace. If we can’t take such a path, we are better off without a president at all.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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