Too Much Presidential Power

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President Bush’s proposal to subsidize private religious charity is a disaster in the making. It would wreck good charities by making them dependent on federal loot. It would compromise their religious mission by making them squeamish about evangelizing.

It threatens to inflame taxpayers against Christian groups who are lobbying for the cash, which is the last thing these charitable groups need. Even the left has a point about the separation of church and state: faith-based organizations should be funded voluntarily, not through the coercion of the tax system.

In fact, we ought to take that logic a step further to call for the full separation of society and state: all organizations (charities, businesses, schools, hospitals, civic groups, etc.) should be funded voluntarily. In the meantime, the proper policy priority is to reduce the number of groups dependent on the federal government, not add another layer.

Bush probably meant well in proposing the idea. As governor of Texas, he saw the failure of the welfare state and the success of private charity by comparison. A regular person might conclude from this that the public sector ought to be shrunk so the private sector can take on ever more responsibility. Instead, in an upside down way, Bush concluded that private charities should be absorbed into the government!

Where does this crazy logic come from?

When you become president, it appears, you are no longer a regular person. Everyone tells you that you must have a vision and a plan for using the vast amount of taxpayer loot at your disposal. You are constantly encouraged to think and behave like a central planner. The activities and institutions outside the orbit of the state begin to appear irrelevant, as if they don’t really exist. All that really matters is the reality you see inside the beltway.

Governors have this problem too, but the presidency exacerbates it many times over. If one man stays in the job for too long, like Clinton, he begins to see himself as the center of the universe, knowing all that is important to know about everything important. The people who voted for you become this statistical abstraction called the “approval rating,” and it doesn’t take long for a president to become cynical about the wild volatility of these polls.

The weirdest, the most immoral, aspect of presidential might is the war-making power. It was only weeks into George Bush’s presidency that he launched more attacks on Iraq — a gravely impoverished country that the U.S. has been strangling for longer than a decade. Some bombs landed in civilian areas, of course, as always, and there were reports of civilian deaths, of course, as always. Remarkable. George Bush, husband and father, had only been president a couple of weeks when he decided that taking innocent human life in a country halfway around the world was wholly justifiable.

The presidency has become a job with a whole series of unseemly initiation rites. One rite involves proposing a range of new uses of taxpayer dollars: that’s where Bush’s charity proposal comes in. Another is to kill a few foreigners just to show the world who is boss: that’s Bush’s Iraq policy. George Bush, as decent a fellow as you will ever meet, is just as likely to follow these prescribed rites as his predecessors and successors.

It’s time that we realize that the problem of the presidency goes beyond the man. It’s the office that is inherently corrupt. No man should be permitted to possess the power of the presidency. The whole of Western history was a continuing struggle to limit and curb the ability of men to seize this much power. The greatest advances of politics consisted of eliminating the existence of such offices from the earth. But in our own country, conceived in liberty, the worst form of Caesarism has taken root. We see it in both foreign and domestic policy.

To understand how this has happened, and why the presidency as currently constituted needs to be uprooted as an institution, there is no better source than Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, edited by John V. Denson (Mises Institute, 2001). This 826-page tome turns conventional presidency history on its head to tell the truth about the power-grabs and power-abuses that have been made possible by this office.

Still, there are a few bright moments in the history of the presidency. Grover Cleveland was sent a bill by Congress that would have used tax dollars for drought relief in Texas. He vetoed it, saying:

“I do not believe that the power and duty of the general Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering. … A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power should, I think, be steadfastly resisted. … Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our National character.”

If Bush really wants to be a great president, that is the view that he should adopt. And he should stick to it through thick and thin.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits

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