Thursday, August 20, 2020

Our problem with the presidency

Dear M,

Paul Johnson says, in his biography of Washington, that in 1789, the only monarch with powers as wide as the President's was the czar.  All the other ones were hemmed in by regulations.  Johnson doesn't go too far into detail about it; but why take his word when we can see it right in front of us?  In the last eight years we found the President can put grown men into little girls' locker rooms; that he can pay enemy states hundreds of billions in ransom cash; that he can flood our states with millions of Africans and Middle-Easterners; that he can make or unmake the border at whim; that he can grant citizenship to illegal aliens; that he can pardon scores of drug dealers; that he can veto almost every bill; that he can station troops in any town; that he can put off the payment of payroll taxes; that he can effectively bribe the unemployed with hundreds of dollars a week; that he can bomb people in countries we're not at war with; that he can spy on the next presidential candidate and walk away scot-free; and that, according to Democrats, he can lock the country down and not allow anyone "inessential" to run a business.

Many of these things are done, of course, in "an emergency."  But who decides what constitutes an emergency?  He does.  Not like the Romans, whose Senate decided, in extreme cases, that only a dictator could save them.  They would get themselves in a pickle and pick somebody to do anything, for a very short time, so they could continue existing.  But the president doesn't have anyone to tell him we're in an existential crisis.  He is the existential crisis.  If he decides anyone in the whole nation, from transgender kids to illegal aliens to black criminals is in danger, suddenly your daughter is in danger.

Johnson says Washington's goodness was to blame for this.  He was so moderate and well-behaved that people imagined him in the pilot's seat and didn't imagine a Barack Obama, or a Donald Trump, or a Kamala Harris.  They believed too highly in the goodness of man; but don't they have to, in some measure?  There's no government in the world that can run well when the Supreme Court is full of activists and not judges; when Congress is full of enemies and sellouts; when the public is ignorant, immoral, and increasingly distracted.  You can save a people from the government, but you can't save a government from the people.

We praise the Founding Fathers for their wisdom, but forget that this wisdom was stitched together, on the fly, during centuries of emergencies.  It was just as much tradition as it was an invention.  King John wanted to throw people in jail for personal reasons.  That's why we have Habeas Corpus*.  King Charles I wanted to dictate with a standing army.  That's why congress holds the power of taxation.  King James II tried to change the state religion.  That's one reason we have a First Amendment.  None of these rights were defensible unless the public was ready to kill officials.  This is why we have the Second Amendment.  

Every right we ever had was invented because somebody else got brutalized.  Every inch of progress we gained was because somebody else went six feet under.  Our Founding Fathers ought to be revered for getting us this far; but we have our own emergencies today, and the Constitution wasn't engraved on stone tablets by the finger of God.  Ben Franklin said, as the Constitution was being signed, that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present.  Why would we call this Constitution perfect, when the people who made it said it wasn't?  Why would we grant kingship to Caesar, when we know full-well he was followed by Nero and Caligula?   

The Founding Fathers were right about one thing here, and that's that inability, in the executive power, is also dangerous.  Who can tell the president exactly how to act, when life is throwing new crises at us willy-nilly?  He has to be able to assess things and move, relatively unhampered, or the whole country will be over before congress ever drafts a bill.  Executive power requires good judgment and on-the-fly thinking.  There is no precedent for a perfect president.  History offers examples, situations, and anecdotes, but not re-runs.  There are always guidelines, but no guarantees.  He does his best, and if he's smart, he prays to God.

But too much freedom for the President means slavery for the rest of us.  What we have to remember is that the Presidential power is like any other quality we love.  Every principle has to be broken, sooner or later, not just by immorality, but by the other principles.  So yes we believe in property -- but do we believe in just one man owning it?  Yes we believe in freedom of speech -- but do we believe in perjury?  Yes we're for marriage -- but are we for wife-beating?  Yes we believe in charity -- but do we give to strangers when our children are going hungry?  Like justice and mercy, or liberty and equality, the goodness of each thing lies more in the balance and the timing than in its wholeness.  Each side treads on the other artfully so we don't end up losing both.  A radical appears to believe more strongly in principles, not because he has more, but because he has fewer.  His belief in one is in direct proportion to how little he believes in the others.    

This philosophy applies to all life and thus it applies to the presidency.  We need both leeway and restriction, and if we plan right, we can have them.  As such I submit to you the following plan.  

Create an executive council, elected by the Senate, comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans.  No executive order can be given without a "yes" vote from four of them.  We can hold a yearly vote against these counselors; and if 60% of the public hates one, we can impeach him.  To protect them from party machinations, these counselors will swear off all contact with any member of congress -- or even each other, except at meetings for executive orders.  If anyone contacts them on behalf of any member of congress, that person will be fined $1,000,000 or spend three years in prison.  

Yours truly,
-J

*Habeas Corpus, or, effectively, the right to not be thrown in prison without a trial, is one of the most fundamental rights in any free society.  But crises have a way of throwing even fundamentals into disrepute.  Shelby Foote writes about Lincoln, in his first volume of The Civil War:

Some among those who had criticized him for doing nothing began to wail that he did too much. And with good and relevant cause; for now that the issue was unalterably one of arms, Lincoln took unto himself powers far beyond any ever claimed by a Chief Executive. In late April, for security reasons, he authorized simultaneous raids on every telegraph office in the northern states, seizing the originals and copies of all telegrams sent or received during the past year. As a result of this and other measures, sometimes on no stronger evidence than the suspicions of an informer nursing a grudge, men were taken from their homes in the dead of night, thrown into dungeons, and held without explanation or communication with the outside world. Writs of habeas corpus were denied, including those issued by the Supreme Court of the United States. By the same authority, or in the absence of it, he took millions from the treasury and handed them to private individuals, instructing them to act as purchasing agents for procuring the implements of war at home and abroad. In early May, following the call for 75,000 militiamen, still without congressional sanction, he issued a proclamation increasing the regular army by more than 20,000, the navy by 18,000, and authorizing 42,034 three-year volunteers. On Independence Day, when Congress at last convened upon his call, he explained such extraordinary steps in his message to that body: “It became necessary for me to choose whether I should let the government fall into ruin, or whether … availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the Constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it.” Congress bowed its head and agreed. 

So in terms of rights we've seen some pretty big ones trampled and we've bounced back.  The fear isn't so much that the President doesn't know where the line is.  It's how long the people will put up with trampling in an emergency -- and whether or not they'll get used to it.


Like these essays?  Email me at letterssubscription@gmail.com and start your subscription today.

Support the Letters by sending a gift to paypal.me/supporttheletters or www.venmo.com/TheLetters

4 comments:

  1. Excellent reminder! Thanks and kepp 'em comin'!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Was 100% with you until the recommendation. Small groups, majority,fines, annual vote, impeachment etc. to hold executive in check sounds like a night mare. Look at the Democrats tactics over the last 4 years along with vote harvesting and mail vote to occupant etc.
    My vote is for term limits for Congress.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "My vote is for term limits for Congress."

      This.

      Delete
  3. "My vote is for term limits for Congress."

    ReplyDelete