Power and Vulnerability

Worrying about centralized power is the job of all libertarians everywhere. But not everyone shares this fear of despotism. Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the Wall Street Journal, seeks to demonstrate that Bush is no Imperial President, and neither were his predecessors Nixon, Kennedy, and FDR. They were not imperial or powerful, says Tanenhaus; they were just presidential.

The crucial thing to ask about a piece like this is: what is his standard? How can we judge whether a president is imperial or not? There are three forms of presidential imperialism: being belligerent internationally, being intrusive domestically, and running roughshod over another branch of government. In all three ways, it would seem obvious that the Bush presidency is imperial. From a rhetorical point of view, it would seem a better tack to admit it and defend the idea, as Wall Street Journal writers usually do.

If you read a treatise like John Denson’s Reassessing the Presidency, and judge the presidency against America’s founding fear of executive rule, most presidencies have been excessively imperial, but particularly modern ones, though some more than others (Carter is looking better and better in retrospect, for example). The Constitution gives the chief executive very few functions, and most of those can be carried out only with the advice and consent of the Senate. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches were supposed to be of somewhat balanced weight, jealously checking each other.

But today, the imperial nature of the presidency is proven by this fact alone: it has the power to destroy the world with the push of a button, without consulting anyone. This is no idle threat. The US remains the only government in human history to have dropped nuclear weapons on people, it has far more weapons than anyone else, and remains the only country that reserves to itself the right of first strike. How would Washington or Jefferson have viewed that?

Still, Tanenhaus denies that the Bush administration is imperial, while nowhere giving us an example of a president — or any government leader anywhere — who can rightly be considered imperial. How are we to recognize an imperial presidency on the off chance that one should come along?

He does offer this critique of the thesis that presidents have been, and that Bush is, imperial. His proof comes down to two sentences. “Every modern president has found power to be elusive, slippery and at times treacherous,” he writes. “They occupy an office fraught with risk and are never more vulnerable than when their power seems greatest.”

That’s it — a criterion that we might call the vulnerability test. In Tanenhaus’s view, if power is vulnerable it is not imperial. If power is imperial, it is not vulnerable. What he has in mind here is that the president is always worried about polls and political rivals, about making deals in Congress and having his appointees rejected or dragged through the mud. The presidency must constantly care about internal leaks and betrayals and plots, to say nothing of the legacy of the administration. In this sense, the presidency does not have absolute power because he cannot always command unquestioned obedience.

All of this is true enough, but does it really prove the absence of imperial power? What about the possibility that power and vulnerability go together? The more powerful the president, the more he uses the power he has to build the state and concentrate its decision-making authority within the White House, the more he must concern himself with keeping that power and deterring threats to that power.

This is certainly the case with history’s most notorious despots. Nero was obsessed by the plots against him. Stalin believed himself to be constantly vulnerable, and made it his mission to kill his rivals before they killed him. Byzantine and Ottoman emperors typically killed all their male relatives. Hitler was paranoid about the prospect of tyranicide. Ceausescu lived and ate deep in a bunker, and, like despots of old, had tasters check his food.

To be ruled despotically is contrary to the nature of man; that’s why every dictator feels himself vulnerable: he knows that what he is doing upsets the natural order. Nor is this behavior limited to autocrats. Indeed, security of themselves and their government is the first concern of all heads of state. Why is that? Power is never absolute. The more it attempts to be, the more it can awaken the human longing for freedom, and inspire the desire to resist.

Ultimately, as Hobbes demonstrated, the use of power requires the cooperation of the subjects. People must be willing to obey. It is for this reason that the more power is used, the more it comes under question. In this impulse and dynamic we find the basis of revolution. To prevent revolution, every dictator would like to will away the freedom of people to think for themselves.

Thomas Jefferson thought that to awaken the revolutionary impulse, and to remind powerful governments that they are vulnerable is a good thing. “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,” he wrote in his Declaration, “it is [the people’s] right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The small, unintrusive government faces few threats to its limited power. Until Lincoln’s day, for example, it was possible to walk around Washington unencumbered. One could knock on the White House door and be greeted by the president’s butler. No office was closed to citizens. It was like any other town. There was no great fear emanating from the presidential quarters or any other public office. Why? Because power in the modern sense was so small. No one in government had good reason to feel threatened by anyone.

But as the power of DC has grown, so has its fortress mentality. Walking around Washington today, you have the feeling that you are constantly watched. Streets are sealed to traffic. Forget trying to visit any bureaucracy. You can’t get in the door without an official invitation. Every movement on the streets is recorded on camera. Employees of every bureau are prone to jump at the slightest odd noise, and arrest anyone who behaves unusually. These are all indications that DC considers its power slippery and treacherous — while, at the same time, being proof of overweening power itself.

Some people rule out the possibility of abusive power in a democracy, which means rule by the people. But Bertrand de Jouvenel describes the reality: “The history of the democratic doctrine furnishes a striking example of an intellectual system blown about by the social wind. Conceived as the foundation of liberty, it paves the way for tyranny. Born for the purpose of standing as a bulwark against power, it ends by providing Power with the finest soil it has ever had in which to spread itself over the social field.”

Of what does the imperial power of the Bush administration consist? There are the accumulated precedents of all predecessors — every despotic act of every “great” president can be invoked to justify just about anything he wants to do. Then there is the nuts-and-bolts power of the executive branch, which is vastly larger and more managerially invasive than the other branches.

There is the power over public opinion that comes from the media’s and people’s view that he is somehow the Maximum Leader of the nation. There are his hundreds of billions of discretionary funds to be spent in the course of four years. There is his own moral conviction that he is right and leads a country that is blameless, even infallible, in foreign policy. Finally, there is control of public opinion, which shifted towards passivity in the face of government claims after 9-11.

Now, to say that Bush is an Imperial President is not necessarily to make a personal critique of the man. Benjamin Constant observed that when people are angry at power, they should remember that “it is the measure of force that is the culprit, not its holders. Your indignation needs to be directed against the sword and not against the arm. There are weapons which are too heavy for the hand of man.”

We can think of many examples: To seek to “grow an economy,” to rid the world of evil, to right every domestic wrong, to manage the evolution of community life, to control the politics of every state and nationu2014these are absurd ambitions. To seek them is to be imperial, and with empire comes delusion, which intellectuals collude in heralding.

Why can’t intellectuals recognize power and its evils, and call it what it is? Aside from their personal interests, it has something to do with the blinding mystery of government itself. It is for the same reason that taxation is not called theft, that the draft is not called kidnapping, that war is not called murder. Wrote St. Augustine:

What are thieves’ purchases but little kingdoms? For in thefts, the hands of the underlings are directed by the commander, the confederacy of them is sworn together, and the pillage is shared by the law amongst them. And if those ragamuffins grow but up to be able enough to keep forts, build habitations, possess cities, and conquer adjoining nations, then their government is no more called thievish, but graced with the eminent name of a kingdom.

Our modern despots are graced with the eminent name of president.

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