Leaders and Officers

The inevitable proposal by President Bush to expand Homeland Security into a permanent federal bureaucracy highlights a crucial distinction in politics, namely, the distinction between leaders and officers.

What does it mean to be a leader? And what does it mean to be an officer?

For starters, it seems that many Americans have never bothered to consider the essence of these concepts. Worse, it would appear that many Americans cannot distinguish between the concepts.

First, following Webster’s (although the Oxford English Dictionary is to be preferred), we may define a "leader" as "a person who by force of example, talents or qualities of leadership plays a directing role, wields commanding influence, or has a following in any sphere of activity or thought."

Beethoven and Mozart were leaders in the field of musical composition.

Second, and in contrast, an "officer" is "one charged with a duty" or "one who is appointed or elected to serve in a position of trust, authority or command, especially as specifically provided for by law."

Despite the similarity in popular, unreflective thought, not all officers are, or should be, leaders. To illustrate this distinction, consider the rather obvious example of many of the politicians you see on TV. Many are about as inspiring as a bowl of moldy tangerines (to borrow a line from the film UHF). Similarly, many politicians cannot be reasonably said to have a following in any sphere of "thought," except perhaps as regards their lack thereof.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton might be said to have a following in a "sphere of activity," but the fields of philandering and perjury, to be fair, pre-date his ambitious tenure in the Oval Office.

Consider also the case of corporate structure. In a corporation, the officers are given particular duties. These duties are delegated by the Articles of Incorporation, or the By-Laws. The president, for example, is assigned to preside over meetings, hence his title: president. Someone who presides.

A corporate Secretary typically keeps minutes of meetings and sends out notices. The corporate Treasurer typically has financial duties. You get the idea.

Suppose, however, that in a corporation, the Secretary wanted more power. In short, he was too wise, talented, or "great," to be bound by the duties given to him by the Articles of Incorporation. Suppose that man charged with sending out notices of shareholder meetings decided to "take action" and move Ford Motor Company from the production of automobiles into the production of X-rated films with automotive themes. He would very likely be removed from his job.

The job description is the job description, and it is not for the Secretary to usurp the powers of the corporation’s President, board of directors, or managers. Where business and shareholder derivative suits are concerned, Americans seem to understand the idea of an "officer" and the idea of limited power.

Where politicians are concerned, however, Americans are largely in favor of the "great man" view of politics. In short, if the dictator is smiling and mild, Americans will sign their liberties away like F.D.R. selling Poland to the Soviets.

President Bush has proposed that the Department of Homeland Security be created in order for crack government operatives — who admittedly failed to prevent the tragedy of September 11 — to fail to protect American lives and property in more expensive and colossal ways.

Where in the constitution, one wonders, is the president of the United States of Ameirca provided with so many of the powers popularly associated with that office?

Hint: the powers actually delegated to the chief executive officer of the federal constitution of 1789 hardly resemble the powers which have been arrogated by president upon president.

And yet Americans have acquiesced. There is more money to be made in going along with federal power grabs. There seem to be no adverse consequences.

Another, and final, hint: the consequences of the loss of liberty are not immediately felt. To paraphrase David Hume, liberty is rarely lost all at once.

To quote Edmund Burke, "The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion." It is high time for Americans to turn away from the delusion that is the "great leader" view of the presidency. History is cluttered with examples of failed societies who placed their trust in "great leaders" rather than in liberty under the law.

There is no better time than the present for Americans to reassert the constitutional delegation of powers — limited powers — to federal officers.