The Cult of the Presidency

Who can we blame for the radical expansion of executive power? Look no further than you and me.

“I ain’t running for preacher,” Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm’s fund raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm’s mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today’s candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher—and much else besides.

In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama’s campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope is “Yes we can!” We can, the Democratic front-runner promises, not only create “a new kind of politics” but “transform this country,” “change the world,” and even “create a Kingdom right here on earth.” With the presidency, all things are possible.

Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving a “cause greater than self-interest,” he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who “liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office” and “nourished the soul of a great nation.” President George W. Bush, when passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senator “will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, suggests she is “ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.”

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the “commander in chief” as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It’s difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble.

Minimum Leader
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The modern vision of the presidency couldn’t be further from the Framers’ view of the chief executive’s role. In an age long before distrust of power was condemned as cynicism, the Founding Fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities. The Constitution’s architects never conceived of the president as the man in charge of national destiny. They worked amid the living memory of monarchy, and for them the very notion of “national leadership” raised the possibility of authoritarian rule by a demagogue ready to create an atmosphere of crisis in order to enhance his power.

The constitutional office they designed gave the president an important role, but he’d have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” the 69th essay of The Federalist Papers tells us. In Federalist No. 48, James Madison assured Americans that under the proposed Constitution the “executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its powers.” Indeed, the very pseudonym the Federalist’s authors chose, “Publius,” says something about how hostile Founding-generation Americans were to the idea of one-man rule. Publius Valerius Poplicola, a hero of the Roman revolution in the 5th century B.C., was famous in part for passing a law providing that anyone suspected of seeking kingship could be summarily executed.

Never were constitutional limitations more essential than when it came to using military power. Early Americans were no strangers to national security threats; in 1787 the U.S. was a small frontier republic on the edge of a continent occupied by periodically hostile great powers and Indian marauders. Yet the Constitution limited emergency powers and sharply rejected the idea that the president was above the law. “In no part of the Constitution,” Madison wrote in 1793, “is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.” In any other arrangement, “the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.” That sentiment crossed party lines. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1801, “the whole powers of war being by the Constitution of the United States vested in Congress, the acts of that body can alone be resorted to as our guides.”

Today Americans expect their president to pound Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit,” whipping the electorate into a frenzy to harness power against perceived threats. But the Framers viewed that sort of behavior as fundamentally illegitimate. In fact, the president wasn’t even supposed to be a popular leader. As presidential scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis has pointed out, in the Federalist the term leader is nearly always used pejoratively; the essays by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in defense of the Constitution begin and end with warnings about the perils of populist leadership. The first Federalist warns of “men who have overturned the liberties of republics” by “paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants,” and the last Federalist raises the specter of a “military despotism” orchestrated by “a victorious demagogue.”

Instead of stoking public demands for action, the chief magistrate was expected to resist “the transient impulses of the people” and use his veto to keep Congress within its constitutional bounds. That role didn’t require much speechifying. Early presidents rarely spoke directly to the public; from George Washington through Andrew Jackson, they averaged little more than three speeches per year, with those mostly confined to ceremonial addresses. In his first year in office, by comparison, President Clinton delivered 600.

In the early State of the Union addresses to Congress, presidents knew better than to adopt an imperious tone. After his third SOTU, Washington wrote that “motives of delicacy” had deterred him from “introducing any topic which relates to legislative matters, lest it should be suspected that [I] wished to influence the question” before Congress. Yet the deference shown by Washington and his successor John Adams didn’t go quite far enough for our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who thought their practice of speaking before the legislature in person smacked of the British king’s “Speech From the Throne.” Jefferson instead inaugurated a new tradition of delivering the annual message in writing. For 112 years, that Jeffersonian tradition held sway, until the power-hungry Woodrow Wilson delivered his first State of the Union in person.

The 19th century did see presidents occasionally taking independent action of enormous consequences: Jefferson purchased Louisiana without congressional approval, Madison seized West Florida in 1810, Andrew Jackson governed as an irritable populist, and Abraham Lincoln expanded presidential power dramatically throughout the course of the cataclysmic Civil War. Yet taken as a whole, the 19th-century presidency was a pale shadow of the plebiscitary office we know today.

In a 2002 study tracking word usage through two centuries of SOTUs and inaugural addresses, political scientist Elvin T. Lim noted that in the first decades under the Constitution presidents rarely mentioned poverty, and the word help did not even appear until 1859. Nor did early presidents subscribe to the modern notion that it’s all “about the children”; they rarely even mentioned the little buggers. But Lim found that “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton made 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.”

George Washington did mention kids in his seventh annual message, lamenting “the frequent destruction of innocent women and children” by Indian raiders. But that was a far cry from Bill Clinton in 1997, who declared in the State of the Union that “we must also protect our children by standing firm in our determination to ban the advertising and marketing of cigarettes that endanger their lives.”

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  • kinnath||

    Presidents are celebrities selected by vast numbers of voters based upon less real information than is available in a typical 15 second beer commercial (less filling versus tastes great).

  • Elemenope||

    I blame American Idol. Not because of any causative theory to speak of, but just because it's there.

  • Episiarch||

    This is all George Washington's fault.

  • EJM||

    Americans, left, right, and other, think of the "commander in chief" as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes.

    Well, James Norcross was both president and a superhero.

    (reference explained here)

  • Elemenope||

    This is all George Washington's fault.

    "He'll save the children, but not the British children...he's coming, he's coming, he's coming!"

  • ||

    Healy has it exactly right, and it's great to see it on this month's cover.

    So, how do Reason and Hit & Run reconcile this with their own massive, breathless coverage of the presidential campaign? Actually, not even the presidential campaign at this point -- the freaking primaries. (Looking at you, Weigel.)

    Such overwhelming coverage carries an implicit message: The presidency is Very, Very Important, and we think that's the way it should be. If it were presented with more of a watchdog vibe -- like, keeping a wary, cynical eye on the public's misguided hype -- the coverage volume would make sense. But it's not. It's presented the same way the rest of the media presents it: as an unquestioned really big deal.

    So long as we treat the presidency like a powerful monarchy, we're going to get wannabe monarchs trying to be really powerful. I don't think that's what libertarians want.

  • Edward||

    As a species, we may be hard wired for hierarchy.

  • Elemenope||

    As a species, we may be hard wired for hierarchy.

    In other news, Edward says something that is not completely retarded.

    This *must* be a set-up for something stupid. I can just feel it.

  • Episiarch||

    He killed his sensei and never said why.

  • ||

    Shit.

    I know shit's bad right now, wid'all that starvin' bullshit. And the duststorms. And we runnin' out of french fries and burrito coverin's.

    But I got a solution.

    Now I understand everyone's shit's emotional right now, but listen up.

    I got a three point plan to fix everything.

    Number one: we got this guy Not Sure.
    Number two: he's got a higher IQ than any man alive!
    And number three: he's gonna fix everything.

    I give you my word as president.
    He's gonna fix all the problems with the dead crops; he's gonna make them grow ~again~.

    And that ain't all!

  • Rhywun||

    "And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it."

    Did anyone else hear the voice of Mr. Van Driessen here?

  • JayDubya||

    "This is all George Washington's fault."

    Bastard just had to be too damn good at the job.

  • ||

    "On October 17, 2006, the same day he signed the Military Commissions Act denying centuries-old habeas corpus rights to "enemy combatants," the president also signed a defense authorization bill that contained gaping new exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, the federal law that restricts the president's power to use the standing army to enforce order at home."

    The 2007 changes to the PCA and the Insurrection Act were repealed in the 2008 defense authorization act. Does Reason have editors or fact checkers for this crap? Does anyone who works at Reason even have a high school fucking diploma? Healy is either a liar or doesn't know shit about PCA and federal emergency response law. Which is it?

  • Al Federber||

    Reason sucks.

  • zoltan||

    As a species, we're also "wired" to be extraordinarily violent and unabashedly xenophobic. Don't make the 'is' an 'ought' though.

  • ||

    Easy there, John. The bit about a high school fucking diploma is a little over the top, but I'm glad you saw Healy's error and commented on it; I admit I wouldn't have thought to check that myself.

    Reading this article reminded me of my anarchist days: the idea that bad government comes from bad men, as opposed to excessive governmental power, is about as politically astute as Disney's "Robin Hood".

  • Mike Laursen||

    So, how do Reason and Hit & Run reconcile this with their own massive, breathless coverage of the presidential campaign?

    I think reason the opposite of sucks, but I'm with Tom on this one. Please, more cosmotarian, too-cool-for-school leather-jacketed, used to be in a rock band and still know a bunch of struggling musicians in L.A.'s rock scene, acerbic, ironic, cynical detachment from the Presidential Horse Race. Please.

  • Djinn||

    Hey, Bush isn't the only one to have grabbed power and not let go

  • ||

    Zac,

    I assume they have a high school diploma but that was such an elementary mistake.

    Would Reason prefer a runaway Congress? The problem is not the Presidency the problem is a governmen that is too powerful. If you look at the history of the last 100 years and the rise of federal government power, all three of the branches share about equally in the blame.

    A unitary exectutive is not always a bad thing. Somethings ought not to be run by committee. The issue is what do we want the federal government doin and what do we not want it doing.

  • ||

    Please, more cosmotarian, too-cool-for-school leather-jacketed, used to be in a rock band and still know a bunch of struggling musicians in L.A.'s rock scene, acerbic, ironic, cynical detachment from the Presidential Horse Race. Please.

    (Three Stooge's voice): "Hey! I resemble that!"

  • greenish||

    This was an excellent article. I especially enjoyed the comparisons with the presidencies of old. For God's sake, 3 speeches a year!? I'd be tempted to vote for any bastard who promised that.

  • ||

    It takes 5000 words to say that the role of the President has greatly expanded since the founding of the Republic.

    I guess there's not much happening in world right now.

  • Matt Welch||

    The 2007 changes to the PCA and the Insurrection Act were repealed in the 2008 defense authorization act. Does Reason have editors or fact checkers for this crap? Does anyone who works at Reason even have a high school fucking diploma? Healy is either a liar or doesn't know shit about PCA and federal emergency response law. Which is it?

    We discovered our error about two seconds after the issue was printed, and there is a correction in the July issue. Healy is not a liar, and I graduated from Lakewood Senior High School with a 3.3 grade point average in 1986.

  • enough already||

    It takes 5000 words to say that the role of the President has greatly expanded since the founding of the Republic.

    Sigh. Another stupid and pointless comment devoid of even the hint of substance. But then I guess someone that laments a 5000 word essay on an important topic as too long for his trivial sound-bite tastes isn't the person to look to for anything of substance. Daniel, seriously, stop embarrassing yourself.

  • Sam Grove||

    As a species, we may be hard wired for hierarchy.

    We are hard wired with emotive patterns adapted for tribal survival. There is a strong tendency towards impersonal dominance/submissive relationships from which arises a strong tendency to hierarchy.

    We are also hardwired to seek maximal return for minimal effort.

    We are not hardwired for moral principles making such a matter of awareness and choice.

  • ||

    "The explanation of this, to us, strange phenomenon is that both these institutions were for centuries thought of as ultimate remedies in extreme difficulty or danger. If Parliament was sitting or the Navy at sea it meant that something was up. The gradual acceptance of emergency as a normal condition of life is the mark of political sophistication, distinguishing us from our rough and simple-minded forebears. All of us in the mid-twentieth century know that when a government qualifies its acts or powers with the noun 'emergency' it means to persist in them for a very long time."

    - from Ollard's biography of Sir Robert Holmes (and it's safe to say the third sentence in the extract was written with tongue firmly in cheek)

  • ||

    According to AP, Obama camp has scheduled a meeting with Christie Todd Whitman, former Gov. NJ, frmr EPA sec. Additionally, the website obamawhitman2008.com was purchased just yesterday... might be an interesting wrinkle...

  • Paul||

    John,

    That repeal was "pocket vetoed" by the President. I don't (and haven't) learned enough about the pocket veto, so I can't say what it all means. More investigation to take place...

  • ce||

    Tom - "So, how do Reason and Hit & Run reconcile this with their own massive, breathless coverage of the presidential campaign?"

    The fact that the next president will have so much power is exactly why it's so important. If we were voting for a president with an 18th- or 19th-century level of power, the campaign wouldn't merit so much attention.

  • ||

    The fact that the next president will have so much power is exactly why it's so important. If we were voting for a president with an 18th- or 19th-century level of power, the campaign wouldn't merit so much attention.

    Which is why I qualified my comment to note that a watchdog sort of role would be understandable for a libertarian magazine. As it stands, the subtext in Reason's coverage seems to be that the presidency is supposed to be important and powerful. (As opposed to "well, other people want to make the presidency really powerful, so we're keeping tabs on this dangerous reality.")

    In other words, the Reason coverage seems to instinctively buy into the powerful-presidency notion, rather than treat it with skepticism.

  • Paul||

    In other words, the Reason coverage seems to instinctively buy into the powerful-presidency notion, rather than treat it with skepticism.

    I disagree. The presidency doesn't gain power because we (or Reason) pay attention to it, it's powerful because we give it power.

    The Presidency already has great power, therefore it's important.

  • ||

    It's too bad that Healy only now provided us with this enlightening historical context. If more reasonable, independent voices from the Right had been present earlier in the Bush Administration, perhaps Bush and his enablers would have shown a little more restraint and better judgement.

    Alas, Healy's argument only serves as an historical footnote to the end of Bush's abusive presidency.

  • Chris||

    While I agree that all the events listed in the article are bad .. aren't things a bit different and Better than 100 years ago?

    With an unchangeable document governing the masses, and thousands of people bickering in democracy, nothing would ever be accomplished in Washington. And yet, you likely scathe the government for not being able to adapt to change such as technology.

    As well, the idea that the government and in particular the president has significant power over the people is as old as the constitution itself. Thomas Jefferson himself predicted the power shift to corporations.

    Having the power in corporations is not akin to placing the power with the people. Corporations are not people, or are they made up of people. They are only legal structures of hierarchy, for which no person or entity can be held accountable. Not only is the power not with the government, but it is not with the people working for said corporations.

    Regrettably, I believe we need a powerful president, if only to help prevent inevitable collapse of our government. Atrocities such as those listed in the article are merely remnants of mistakes in governmental organization and checks and balances. If a government is unable to change itself, mistakes will be made until the government has to be uprooted. I do not see this ability in the legislative branch, and not in the current Supreme Court, so President Obama will have to do.

    Thanks for reading.

  • ||

    The raise of presidential power beyond the means anticipated in the Constitution is only a relflection of the growth of government as a whole. Our national government was supposed to be a very modest affair. Now it builds the roads, schools the children, takes care of the poor, runs a retirement program, operates a health care program for the old and maybe soon for everyone, regulates business and trade, etc... As we have turned more of our lives over to the government it only stands to reason, or against it, that the president will have more power and fame,

  • ce||

    Sorry Tom, I should have taken your qualifier more into account with my comment.

    In any case, Reason treating the presidency as a big deal isn't an endorsement of the situation. If anything, I would think they've just accepted it, knowing there isn't much you can do about it, besides voting.

  • Chris||

    @Sog

    "As we have turned more of our lives over to the government..."

    Many of you talk as if you were alive when the constitution was written. I suggest that without this so-called nanny state we wouldn't have the ability to read and post freely on this website - we would likely be confined to physical labor. But we we're born American and many of us had the evil help of our government or our dreadful parents. You act as if you were to live with the fish and wolves, but rather you get on about it, you all whine in the luxury of your cushy American condo.

    ~just adding a bit of good ol' devil's advocacy~

  • ||

    Um, yeah, Chris.

  • ||

    The growth of the presidency into an imperial institution is to be expected - people want "leaders" they want a Messiah, they do cling to authority figures. It is easier to identify with a human being than an incoporeal idea or notion (thus the extraordinary appeal of Christianity as opposed to Judaism, or even Islam). Therefore, we project our national desires onto one man - the President. The genuis of constitutional monarchy is that it allows a non-political person to absorb the affection of the nation, and to embody the spirit of the nation, without directing those affections towards political ends - there is a reason Hitler hated monarchy, if the Kaiser was still on the throne, Hitler could never possibly have been the Fuehrer of the German nation. The founding fathers were genuises, but even they may not have appreciated the "soft" power that has enabled mere politicians to exercise such command and authority as modern presidents have done.

    God Save the Queen anyone?

  • ||

    "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
    - Denis Diderot

    When a president pretends to be both we are in grievous trouble.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Would Reason prefer a runaway Congress?"

    We already have that - and have for a very long time.



    "The problem is not the Presidency the problem is a governmen that is too powerful. If you look at the history of the last 100 years and the rise of federal government power, all three of the branches share about equally in the blame."

    I agree. Healy goes on and on about the transformation of the presidency as if it was a singular phenomenon and not part of a commensurate increase in the power and scope of the other two branches of government.

    The Supreme Court initially blocked a lot of FDR's "New Deal" as being unconstituional but they finally caved in to it and the government has been on a runaway power grab ever since.

  • ||

    When disaster strikes, people want an efficient and centralized response. Otherwise when time is good, they want less government so as not to impede theie enjoyment of the good life. You just can't have it both way all the time. It is naive to think that life, liberty and justice can be perfectly ensured simultaneously and without compromise. It is just not how the real world works- let everyone get on the plane freely and without scrutiny mean that some are going to lose their lives.

  • Brett||

    Great Article! One I hope is read by a heady amt.

  • ||

    I agree. Healy goes on and on about the transformation of the presidency as if it was a singular phenomenon and not part of a commensurate increase in the power and scope of the other two branches of government.

    That's true. But the growing exaltation of the presidency has a distinct and particularly glaring cast to it, because it involves a single human being. The selection of senators and judges hasn't been imbued by Americans with the same romance and theater that is increasingly attached to the selection of presidents.

    It's not that the transformation of the presidency is a singular phenomenon; it's that it's a more vivid symbol.

  • ||

    They are only legal structures of hierarchy, for which no person or entity can be held accountable.

    Tell that to Enron. Or their accountants.

    Their law firm did get off scott free. Which is one reason I've hired them for my company.

    I suggest that without this so-called nanny state we wouldn't have the ability to read and post freely on this website - we would likely be confined to physical labor.

    Because nothing good happens unless the government does it.

  • ||

    When disaster strikes, people want an efficient and centralized response.

    Well, which is it? An efficient response, or a centralized response? At the scale where FEMA operates, you can't have both.

  • ||

    You have an excellent point, Ben; the head of government should not also be head of state... it gives him far too much political cover.

  • Paul||

    and thousands of people bickering in democracy, nothing would ever be accomplished in Washington.

    And this is a bad thing...how?

  • ||

    It is naive to think that life, liberty and justice can be perfectly ensured simultaneously and without compromise.

    That's right. Life liberty and property can only be ensured by destroying life libertty and property.

  • ||

    It makes one wonder if the Constitution is an unworkable document in practice. Or to be a little more generous, perhaps it works only during good times. The first war, famine, natural disaster, etc. to come along results in human nature contriving to render it (the Constitution) as merely a guideline.

  • Paul||

    Chris, what the hell?

    Having the power in corporations is not akin to placing the power with the people. Corporations are not people, or are they made up of people. They are only legal structures of hierarchy, for which no person or entity can be held accountable. Not only is the power not with the government, but it is not with the people working for said corporations.

    Corporations don't have "power". As has been hammered home in threads previous, Safeway can't take my property, arrest me for smoking weed, restrict my speech etc. Only through a willing and receptive government can Safeway engage in this activity. Corporations may want power over their own customers, or even their communities, but they can only acquire it through well greased government official. Because government officials have increasingly absolute power over our lives through both legislative and regulatory process, those same politicians become attractive targets for corporate largesse. Remove the power of regulatory life and death from politicians, and there's no lever of power to wrap your hand around.

    So this statement:

    Regrettably, I believe we need a powerful president, if only to help prevent inevitable collapse of our government.

    Makes almost no sense whatsoever. Our government is doing anything but collapsing, Chris. It's expanding to the point where there is going to be nothing but government.
    With a more powerful president, it doesn't even come into the fore of your conscienceness that the president would be a powerful ally to have in ones court? That the incentive to apply pressure on said president to implement a coroporate agenda would only become more intense?

  • ||

    R C Dean wrote:
    "...Because nothing good happens unless the government does it...."

    Haven't we already established that socialism does not work? Look at the current earthquake disaster in China or the deadly heatwave a few years ago in France. Like Katrina, there is no amount of government effort that could produce results that pleases everyone. We in this country have such an unrealistic expectation on the ability of our givernment to be on constant standby for every possible scenarios like 9/11 or Katrina. It is just not going to happen. People need to start beganving like adults and take personal responsibility to ensure the safety of themselves and their own family.

  • Paul||

    Or to be a little more generous, perhaps it works only during good times.

    Hence the statement that governments must now operate in a continuous crisis mode.

  • ||

    and thousands of people bickering in democracy, nothing would ever be accomplished in Washington.

    It reminds me of the episode of the Simpsons where the comet is heading toward Springfield and the Senate is about to pass a bill to save Springfield but one senator attaches a $30 million rider "to support the perverted arts."

    "All in favor of the amended Springfield-slash-pervert bill?"

    In unison, "Nay".

    Kent Brockman, who is reporting on the story, then says, " I've said it before and I'll say it again: democracy simply doesn't work."

  • bill tammelleo||

    Ok, so why do you wacko's on the right always support the worst abusers, Nixon, Cheney, the current Idiot in the White House? Spare me.

  • Paul||

    Nixon, Cheney, the current Idiot in the White House? Spare me.

    Oh for a sec I thought you were referring to the H&R regulars. I think you meant to post here: http://www.freerepublic.com/tag/*/index

    Always willing to help a lost soul.

  • cbmclean||

    It makes one wonder if the Constitution is an unworkable document in practice. Or to be a little more generous, perhaps it works only during good times. The first war, famine, natural disaster, etc. to come along results in human nature contriving to render it (the Constitution) as merely a guideline.

    This is an excellent point. As a libertarian (with a lower-case l), I am always complaining to people about how the Constitution is being trampled on. I usually get ignored. Is my complaining valid?

    To put it another way, assume that we somehow found politicians who we knew would scrupulously follow the Constituion, to the letter, and then elcted them. Would it work? Would our country flourish? Would it collapse? Would nothing much change? What do you guys think?

  • ||

    Doesn't anyone know how successful our Constitution is?? It's the oldest Constitution still in place for over 20 years. Yes, it's been added to but not changed. It's successful...you start messing with what the Founding Fathers' created that works and it's the beginning of the end!

  • Paul||

    Yes, it's been added to but not changed. It's successful...you start messing with what the Founding Fathers' created that works and it's the beginning of the end!

    The constitution hasn't changed, its interpretation has.

  • JBOY||

    PLEASE COMPARE THE TIMELINES OF THE RISE OF MULTI-NATIONAL CORPORATIONS,THAT CONTROL INTERNATIONAL MONOPOLIES OF TRADE AND GOODS,
    TO THE RISE OF A POTUS'S POWERS.
    THE LOBBYISTS FOR THESE MULTI-NATIONALS HAVE ALREADY BOUGHT AND PAID FOR THE US CONGRESS.
    A POPULIST POTUS IS NOW PERCEIVED TO BE THE PEOPLE'S HERO (MORE LIKE THE LAST CHANCE).
    MAKES ME WANNA LIGHT A NOVENA FOR ST. JUDE, THE PATRON SAINT OF LOST CAUSES.

  • ||

    Gene,

    Well-written, as usual. But no mention of Samuel or Machiavelli.

    Best,

    Corbin

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Paul, what the hell?

    Corporations don't have "power".

    You are actually alive today, aren't you? I mean you're not a ghost from 150 years ago?

    Wake up boy. The government is merging with the corporate universe precisely because corporations do have so much power.

    But the merger isn't happening, as you say, "because the corporations have bought the politicians". Nice conspiracy theory though.


    The problem of modern corporations is a glaring hole in the libertarian universe. Because libertarians don't see the problem. Because "corporation" looks like "capitalism" to libertarians.

    Capitalism only works when business is run by rational actors. But when the last of the one-man empires went "public", upon the deaths of people like Howard Hughes, the rational actors started getting shoved off the stage. [tell the Democrats not to worry though, the shoving is almost completely done and over by now]

    Problem: corporations are not run by rational actors who are motivated by rational self interest. Corporations are run by comittees, who worship The Near-Future God (next quarter's stock market results). If the numbers look bad, the big brass have their golden parachutes.

    The people who make the real decisions in corporate America today, don't have their asses on the line anywhere near to the degree that people like Howard Hughes did. They make the decisions but are largely insulated from real responsibility. It's the laid off employees who pay the real price for f*** ups.

    Howard Hughes told congress where to go, when it needed doing. When was the last time you heard that a board of directors had done anything even close? Comittees do not tell the government where to go. They tell the governent "well, okay".

    This whole arrangement in modern corporate America has eliminated rational self interest from the running of corporations, almost as effectively as socialism.

    But I suppose if you're a true blooded libertarian you'll tell me that these incompetent corporations will die on the free market.

    What you don't understand is that they won't die. Not because they shouldn't, but because all their competitors are just like they are. Who's going to put them out of business?

    Or do you think YOU can compete with Safeway? How close to being a real competitor do you think you're going to get, before your empire has become part of the "publicly owned" corporate universe -- upon which, you will be the same kind of beast you started out trying to slay?

    The "market" doesn't work today like it did 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Wake up.

  • herodotus||

    The "market" doesn't work today like it did 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Wake up.

    And the solution to this problem that you have so insightfully pointed out is.....???

  • ||

    willful censorship by OMISSION re not one MENTION of Republican Candidate for President Congressman Ron Paul.

    the writer, Mr Welch and the posters above hop/skipped/jumped judiciously around mentioning Dr. Paul and his message of freedom and liberty AND CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT and his 30 YEAR warninig of Executive Branch tyranny and the GOP condoning it, calling for it and enacting it.

    Thanks for continuing the shell game.

  • ||

    It's interesting that Gene's article have brought both the Paul-bots and the leftist fans of the imperial Presidency to Hit'n'Run. I'd be curious to know which sites are linking the article.

  • ||

    Where in the Constitution does it say that it is the Federal government's responsibility to respond to natural disasters or has the right to collect income tax? The latter alone would have given our Founding Fathers an instant heart attack! To think that we can some how sustain the spirit of the Constitution in its original form is a childish idealism. In fact, this much revered piece of paper has been manipulated so many times to suit the social agenda of the moment. In the 60's it was manipulated to suit the feminist and civil right movement when those ideas became popular. As Americans, we want to see our system of government rests on rock solid ideals and foundation where in reality such ideals and foundation shifts continuously along popular line. I'm sure all of our founding fathers will be rolling in their graves should they have the opportunity to read our so-called Constitution in its current form. Believing that our Federal government should literally operate within the words of the Constitution is like believing that the Noah's ark is a real boat sitting somewhere on top of a mountain in Turkey waiting to be discovered by the truly faithful. Nut! Get real people and be thankful you have the luxury in this country to whine about silly things like this. This country is not in trouble until the day when a guy like Ralph Nadar becomes the front runner in any election. Then you know people are REALLY pissed.

  • Paul||

    Ebenezer:

    WTF?!!!

    Wake up boy. The government is merging with the corporate universe precisely because corporations do have so much power.

    The government isn't chasing corporations, the corporations are chasing government. Of course there's a merger. What part of my previous message did you utterly and completely fail to read? Talk about waking up. The regulatory state is asking for corporate donations every time new legislation or regulation is passed.

    The problem of modern corporations is a glaring hole in the libertarian universe. Because libertarians don't see the problem. Because "corporation" looks like "capitalism" to libertarians.

    Wow. WOW! Hey guys, get a load of "Ebenezer". He's another one of those... oh, let me guess "progressives" which has become horribly confused between corporatism and capitalism. If he actually bothered to understand capitalism, he'd realise that the two have nothing to do with eachother.

    The corporate state, as you and I are both talking have little to do with capitalism. But I have to admit I wasn't prepared to deliver a 100 level primer on capitalism in this thread.

    Start with this article for a decent introduction: http://www.fff.org/freedom/fd0411e.asp

    Comittees do not tell the government where to go. They tell the governent "well, okay".

    Uhm, ok, I'm not sure what you mean by this, but I'll comment.

    Modern corporations not only embrace, but ask congress for legislation and regulation (in return for hefty campaign contributions) because often its found that said regulations thin out the market of smaller competitors, and shores up market share for existing players. If regulation is initially proposed by government and fought by corporations, a way of watching this in action is to watch the change from opposing regulation turn to acceptance and even embracing said regulation. Someone in the board room figured out how to make money on it, and strangle the smaller startups. You might do some reading on the rapid embrace of regulation of baby formula advertising by the two largest formula manufacturers.

    This whole arrangement in modern corporate America has eliminated rational self interest from the running of corporations, almost as effectively as socialism.

    "Rational self interest". Hmm. Interesting choice of phrase. I have self interest. By definition, it is an interesest held only by myself, but yet you can define it as rational or irrational. How then, can it be called "self interest" if I can't not only define the interest, but its rationality? We'll just let that one go.

    But I suppose if you're a true blooded libertarian you'll tell me that these incompetent corporations will die on the free market.

    Not a corporation that has successfully merged with government. See "too big to fail doctrine". Smaller corporations that have not merged successfully with government do fail. This is why large corporate america so despises capitalism.

    So please, don't come here and preach about the evils of capitalism, then buttress it with a diatribe about large, publicly traded corporations and "public/private partnerships". We'll engage you for a while, but you'll be chucked into the dustbin of progressives that repeatedly try to conflate the corporate state with capitalism.

  • DS||

    Seems to me Ron Paul would be a great person to fix this problem. Too bad Reason tried to destroy his presidential bid instead of promote it, and CATO has just simply ignored it entirely.

    Of course this is the story of the libertarian movement over the last 40 years - destroying each other while the Republicrats march forward unabated.

  • ||

    Well said Paul. Corporations are held in check by the will of the people by how well they perform. It is rare to see a corporation deliberately do risky or unwise things simply because its executives don't care since they have golden parachutes anyway. Corporations attempt to merge with government, understandably, because thats where the concentration of both money and power are.

  • ||

    Healy has it exactly right, and it's great to see it on this month's cover.

    So, how do Reason and Hit & Run reconcile this with their own massive, breathless coverage of the presidential campaign? Actually, not even the presidential campaign at this point -- the freaking primaries. (Looking at you, Weigel.)

    Such overwhelming coverage carries an implicit message: The presidency is Very, Very Important, and we think that's the way it should be. If it were presented with more of a watchdog vibe -- like, keeping a wary, cynical eye on the public's misguided hype -- the coverage volume would make sense. But it's not. It's presented the same way the rest of the media presents it: as an unquestioned really big deal.

    So long as we treat the presidency like a powerful monarchy, we're going to get wannabe monarchs trying to be really powerful. I don't think that's what libertarians want.

    David Mayer
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  • David Mayer||

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  • David May||

    Such overwhelming coverage carries an implicit message: The presidency is Very, Very Important, and we think that's the way it should be. If it were presented with more of a watchdog vibe -- like, keeping a wary, cynical eye on the public's misguided hype -- the coverage volume would make sense. But it's not. It's presented the same way the rest of the media presents it: as an unquestioned really big deal.

    David May
    geo tv

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    It has been said that we get the kind of leaders we deserve. As Gene Healy points out, we have been demanding that the president do more and more, so we effectively have an elected king. How long is it before we make it an official monarchy? Not long if we continue on this path.

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    Hello:
    The 19th century did see presidents occasionally taking independent action of enormous consequences: Jefferson purchased Louisiana without congressional approval, Madison seized West Florida in 1810, Andrew Jackson governed as an irritable populist, and Abraham Lincoln expanded presidential power dramatically throughout the course of the cataclysmic Civil War. Yet taken as a whole, the 19th-century presidency was a pale shadow of the plebiscitary office we know today.

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  • Helen Olsson||

    Good work! I always like to leave comments whenever I see something unusual or impressive. I think we must appreciate those who do something especial. Keep it up, thanks

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  • Helen Olsson||

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