Liberal Democrats and other opponents of the Bush administration have found, in the inauguration this week, a new target for their disdain and protest. Specifically, the lavishness of the ceremony and accompanying festivities, and their sheer cost, seem inappropriate to many liberals, in these times of ours marked by economic troubles and a quagmire in Iraq. Bush’s detractors seem to think that the $40 million price tag — although privately provided — would do more good if sent to Iraq in the form of body protection or armored vehicles, items that even Rumsfeld admits are inadequately funded, at least insofar as the U.S. war aims are concerned. More compellingly, anti-Bush partisans argue that the $100 million or so in taxpayer money, earmarked to fund security, is a heavy cost for what seems to be a mere celebration of gloating and triumphant nose-thumbing on the part of the Republican establishment. On a more general note, opponents of the inauguration claim that Bush already had his moment in the sun in January of 2001, and he hardly needs another festival of hysterical praise and glory, especially considering the divisiveness of the modern polity and the controversial nature of his policies, particularly the war.
Of course, the conservative defenders of all things Bush have a solid point on the $40 million: this is private money, and however it is spent is hardly anyone’s business. On this, at least, libertarians might have some sympathies for Bush’s supporters. Another point made by the Republicans — that, after all, Clinton got his big parties too, and liberals did not complain then — has some validity as it relates to liberal partisan hypocrisy, though I’ve personally never been won over by the "Clinton did it, so why can’t we?" line of reasoning, which we so often hear from conservatives these days.
On the other hand, the anti-inauguration folks make some good points to which libertarians can be somewhat sympathetic. This week features the most naked glorification of the presidency in the public sphere since the election last November, and the formal elevation of Ronald Reagan to the status of an official U.S. deity before that. It is hard for any true lover of liberty to sit through the coverage of such a spectacle — the virtual coronation of a man to the position of Leader of the Free World and Defender of All That Is American and Holy. Making this particular inauguration that much more difficult to withstand are the particularly low quality of Mr. Bush as any sort of defender of the Constitution and American liberty, and the fact that, since this is Bush’s second term, we don’t even get the silver lining of seeing one tyrant thrown out of office, even if only to be replaced by another.
However, aside from the glorification of the presidency — and a president who, admittedly, might very well prove in the next four years to be the worst since Harry Truman — the most principled argument against this ritual is its cost to the taxpayer. But $100 million, or any similar figure, as much as it is in real terms, is no more than the amount the federal government spends every twenty or so minutes. Furthermore, the money spent "securing" the integrity of the inauguration — and, presumably, keeping protesters out of camera shot — while being spent on what can only be considered a tradition of state worship and imperial vainglory, has no realistic chance of being spent by the federal government on anything of greater benefit to liberty or the general welfare of the American people. To the libertarian, the desperate plea that the money should instead go to feed the poor or employ the jobless is without much merit, considering the failings and destructiveness of public-sector economic planning; and the cynical argument that "we" would do better to send the cash to Iraq is likewise unattractive, considering the aggressive nature of the war that we do not want to see funded in the first place.
This is not to say that the institution of inauguration, in all its current implications, costs, and meaning, is something libertarians should defend. Certainly, one hundred million dollars is one hundred million dollars, and, despite its infinitesimal size in relation to the federal budget, it is still unclear why anyone deserves such a subsidy from the central state for a fiesta in his honor. Moreover, as indicated before, Bush is a particularly bad president; a man who has inflated the welfare-warfare state more than has been done since the Great Society and the Vietnam War; a man who has expanded bureaucracy, pork and deficit-spending as if there were no tomorrow; a man who has gutted the Bill of Rights and ignored conventions of civilized warfare in ways that are truly staggering to contemplate. Many libertarians who found themselves queasy and distressed at the state of the country to witness the 1997 re-inauguration of President Clinton will likely have even more trouble holding back the nausea at the sights of President Bush dishonestly swearing, for the second time on international television, to uphold and defend the Constitution as if he had any respect whatever for the limits on his power spelled out in that document.
And this, of course, is the real problem. While the inauguration reminds many of us — including the partisan liberals who resent seeing the media fawn and the red-staters bow before the political supremacy of the Republican Party personified — of how much we do not like George W. Bush and how much we resent seeing even 35 of our personal wealth (on average) go to an extraneous and sickening display of the unmatched power and influence held by this man over all us mere peons, it is the power itself, and not the lavishness of a party for a man we do not like, that truly makes this inauguration controversy any subject of disagreement at all. The modern presidency comprises and commands more power and potential for manmade destruction than have ever been consolidated elsewhere in the domain of one government, much less the hands of one man, in world history. Bush, like those presidents immediately before him, commands the most powerful and expansive military empire ever developed on Planet Earth, and has, at his disposal, the more subtle mechanisms of tyranny within the domestic leviathan state. Like those before him, Bush as President claims and generally maintains the capacity to spy on anyone in America, seize anyone’s bank account, tax anyone into poverty, invade and attempt to conquer virtually any country, and, indeed, if he ultimately feels so inclined, detonate demonic nuclear weapons and destroy entire civilizations all around the globe. While we might fret at the $100 million wasted on his parade, we cannot ignore the $2.5 trillion — about a third of which he has added himself since taking office — that composes the budget of the coercive state he heads, a massive state which, unfortunately, is thought to be held by him legitimately, or at least is thought to exist legitimately, by most partisan opponents of the comparatively meager, however symbolically Caesarian, $100 million inauguration party.
The American political process, which every four years endows such unspeakable power to a man that the vast majority of the people never chose to lead them and at least a sizable minority of whom do not find particularly trustworthy or likeable, inevitably results in grave division in our culture, the inauguration and the controversy surrounding it being mere symptoms of this disease. To be sure, the conservatives who defend Bush’s costly celebration are right that liberals, by and large, did not protest the same way when the man of the hour was Bill Clinton. But did these conservatives feel as compelled to defend the tradition of inauguration, and the imperial presidency it signifies, when the subject to be honored was Slick Willy? And will they be as quick to speak of the importance of this tradition and the necessity for national unity on the next significant January 20th, whether four, eight or twelve years from now, when the man (or woman) being celebrated so enthusiastically by the press and political punditry happens to be a Democrat?
I do believe that many people who take a stand on this inauguration controversy are missing the rainforest for the trees. They understand, on a subliminal level at least, the importance of this ceremony, but they fail to grasp the ungodly power it represents. They also fail to understand the bipartisan nature of most policy questions. Whether a Republican or Democrat runs the show, the show itself is nearly identical: war, graft, corruption, pork, central-planning disasters, lies, propaganda and assaults on our civil liberties all occur under both R and D — albeit, perhaps, with differing public-relations flavoring and cosmetic and rhetorical dressing, and maybe even with some slight differences in priorities on whom gets most abused by the state and who most stands to benefit.
Indeed, most liberal protesters probably do not have much to win or lose from Republican vs. Democratic rule; and the same is probably true for many defenders of Bush’s honor. And if this controversy is every bit as superficial and detached from the real issues at hand as the pristine inauguration is detached from the evils of the presidency itself, perhaps we can come up with a compromise.
Let’s eliminate the modern presidency, as far as the power it wields, and leave in place only a shell of the presidency. Every four years we will have a popularity contest, some time in November, the winner of which gets a four-year post in a magnificent, beautiful office in a white mansion in Washington, DC. The job will pay $400,000 a year, and will come with an elegant jet, butler, driver, and many other such luxuries. Food and clothing will be paid for. Upon coming into office, the new man or woman, who presides ceremoniously over those who wish to revel in his or her influence and honorary prestige, will be asked to put his or her hand on the Bible and swear or confirm a promise not to cause too much trouble in the next four years, and to try not to make too much of a mess at his or her new home.
The federal government and its empire will be disbanded, and so the office will only be symbolic. The office of the new presidency will probably cost, at most, $10 million to maintain annually, which can easily be funded from advertising revenue and selling tickets to State of the Union addresses. In all likelihood, the most popular person in America will be chosen mostly because of how engaging, inspiring, and funny his or her speeches are — which is how the president is largely chosen today — but there would be no façade that the presidency has any real substance beyond that. The arguments over style, rhetoric and esthetics, which already dominate political debate if you listen closely, will finally suit the power of the new presidency, which will amount to zero.
The team spirit and childish mentality of Red vs. Blue, Republican vs. Democrat, and conservative vs. liberal, may remain. Since most people who actively cheer on one party or the other, regardless of what they might believe are their political principles, seem to be far more interested in party loyalty than they are concerned with, or even aware of, the actual, minute policy differences between the two parties, these partisans of partisanship can keep their battle over the presidential office in all its historic symbolism, but without the danger that anyone will actually get hurt by the actions of the winner.
Many of those who today prefer the Democrats or Republicans merely as the least bad of two alternatives will likely feel even better having the destructive presidency gone from their lives altogether.
And the inauguration can remain — and it would be a wonderful event, much like the Superbowl or World Series. It would likely become a benefit to the economy, rather than a drain, as it would make for good entertainment and healthy competitive spirit, with winners but far fewer sore losers, and certainly without any victims of taxation, war or central planning. If the absence of these state-caused horrors does in fact mean that the glory of the presidency would decline and so no one would be interested in donating to the inauguration, so be it. We can then detect whether or not the inauguration budget is truly "private," as today’s conservatives defend it as being, once the presidency itself, and not only the inauguration and celebrations associated with it, becomes entirely privatized, including in its funding.
To top it all off, every new president, stripped completely of all actual power, would no longer require $100 million in tax-financed security, and the controversy over the inauguration would likely disappear along with all the other stupid political controversies of our time.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.