The Problem With the Presidency

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I
think the problem with the Presidency begins with people who care
about certain social problems. Not any one problem in particular,
not rural poverty, inner-city education, obesity, drug abuse, world
democracy, population growth, quality public television, pornography,
trade deficits, armaments, or whatever. And I'm not saying that
it's wrong to care about these problems. But once people have been
trained that only government can solve the problem, all hell can
break loose.

Because
then "public service" becomes a highly-valued, honorable
profession. Socially-concerned people get the proper education and
become bureaucrats — experts in their field. I have no doubt than
most of them care about what they do, that they want to do good.
That's probably half the problem right there. Caring about what
they do, their budget is never large enough — they are always shafted,
understaffed, and underpaid — and they can't do their jobs properly.

To
the degree that the bureaucrat rises to the highest non-politically-appointed
positions in government, the more dangerous he becomes. Whether
in the military, intelligence, diplomacy, law-enforcement, or social
welfare, the knowledge and advice that the bureaucrat gives to his
boss, whether it be a Cabinet Secretary, under-Secretary, or maybe
even the President himself, is but one piece of advice among many.
With your one shot, give them the best you got.

Are
these senior officials supposed to know and understand every detail
of everything? They would be swamped, with conflicting reports,
interpretations, and recommendations.

In
such an environment, if I were a bureaucrat, I'd be inclined, even
if unconsciously, to spin all the relevant facts into a recommendation
that I think would be best for the country. I'd probably omit data
I personally thought was unimportant and emphasize what I thought
are the crucial points. After all, being an "advisor"
means giving "advice," right, not providing all the facts.

Of
course, there's also the problem of job security. When a politically-appointed
boss insists in some way to "get the results that I want!"
regarding a piece of intelligence or other data, it is probably
in one's career interest to find the data, or spin the dubious facts
you have to fit the requirements of the boss.

A
record company executive can't make the same demands. The boss may
say, "Our best act sold ten million CD's the last time. Make
sure his new CD sells twelve million!" Sure, heads may roll
if the album fails to live up to the boss's demands, but what can't
be hidden successfully is the actual data — the actual sales of
the album.

CD
sales, or sales on anything, or television ratings, provide pretty
much irrefutable data. Not so the questions of government. What
does "obesity" mean? What's the difference between healthy
drugs and unhealthy, immoral drugs? What is a wetland? Or an under-performing
school? What is a "Weapon of Mass Destruction" and who
has them?

The
free-market has the objectivity of prices, whereas the government
bureaucrat has the subjectivity of "social problems."
In a free market, if the money isn't coming in through sales, the
business will have to close. But the more that coercion infects
a society through taxation, price control, and prohibition, the
less freedom producers and consumers can set prices, and the more
bureaucrats have the leeway to cook the statistics to bend to whatever
they or their politically-appointed superiors see fit. For some
people in government, no individual will ever be fit enough, no
country will ever be democratic enough, the environment will never
be clean enough, the teachers will never be paid enough. Public
policy can bend to their demands, no matter how inaccurate or wasteful
they may be.

Through
the maze of political appointments and specialized, self-interested
bureaucracy, how can a President be trusted? In other words, the
President is forced to be responsible for so much, an expert of
everything from stem cells to the international steel trade to the
religious and ethnic divisions of Iraq to how the nation's campaign
finance laws can operate in full accordance with the Constitution.

The
libertarian answer to all of these is pretty clear: get the federal
government out of the way. But since few people are libertarian,
and no President ever is, all of these issues become irreducibly
complex. That means, when the principle of freedom is rejected out
of hand, discerning the best of the remaining options requires supernatural,
God-like intelligence.

The
President can't possibly know or anticipate the effects of all of
his executive orders and bill signings. He has to rely on advisors
— not being a libertarian, there's no other realistic choice. To
make the "right decision" on matters he barely knows anything
about, he must trust his appointed underlings, political advisors,
and the professional bureaucrats.

Why
can't the President be trusted? Because the margin of error for
anything he does is too great. The President receives either what
his advisors want him to hear, or what his advisors expect him to
want to hear. The unvarnished truth is the casualty. And how do
we know that senior bureaucrats and advisors even know the truth
themselves, but rely instead on what the lower-levels report to
them?

Even
the most honest, principled and well-meaning of men would be considered
a corrupt failure as President. The President is always too susceptible
to bad advice, and no human being is capable of always knowing when
to get good advice. Even a "good" man who is President
will mislead the American people on numerous occasions, even if
he isn't aware of it.

The
political and bureaucratic structure of the office of the Presidency
is too complicated for one person to manage or control. The job
as modern America has created it, is literally too big for one man.
And the only solution to that is to substantially reduce the size
of the federal government.

September
27, 2004

James
Leroy Wilson [send him mail]
lives and works in Chicago and is a columnist for the Partial
Observer
. He also has a new blog, “Independent
Country
.”

James
Leroy Wilson Archives

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