The Problem With the Presidency

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 Archives