The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 14, Number 8
In a truly free society, it wouldn't matter who the president
was. We wouldn't have to vote or pay attention to debates. We
could ignore campaign commercials. There would be no high stakes
for ourselves, our families, or the country. Liberty and property
would be so secure that we could curse him, love him, or forget
This was the system the framers set up, or people believed
they were getting, with the U.S. Constitution. The president
would never concern himself with the welfare of the American
people. The federal government had no say over it. That was left
to the people's political communities of choice; here we were to
govern ourselves and plan our own future.
The president was mostly a figurehead, a symbol. He had no
public wealth at his disposal. He administered no regulatory
departments. He could not tax us, send our children into wars,
pass out welfare to the rich and poor, appoint judges to take
away our rights, keep dossiers on the citizenry, control a
central bank, or change the laws willy nilly according to the
wishes of special interests.
His job was to oversee a tiny government with virtually no
powers ("few and defined," Madison said) except to arbitrate
disputes among the states, which were the primary governmental
units. If the president transgressed his power, he would be
impeached as a criminal. But impeachment would not be likely,
because the threat was so ominous, it reminded him of his place.
He was also temperamentally unlikely to abuse his power
because he was to be a man of outstanding character, well
respected by the other leading men in society. He could be a
wealthy heir, a successful businessmen, a highly educated
intellectual, or a successful farmer. Regardless, his powers were
to be minimal.
All this astonished Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830. "No
citizen," he wrote, "has cared to expose his honor and his life
in order to become the President of the United States, because
the power of that office is temporary, limited, and subordinate."
The president "has but little power, little wealth, and little
glory to share among his friends; and his influence in the state
is too small for the success or the ruin of a faction to depend
upon his elevation to power."
To make sure it stayed this way, the vice president was to be
a political adversary. He was there to remind the president that
he was eminently replaceable. In this way, the veep's office was
powerful, not over the people, but in keeping the central
government in check.
The president was not elected by majority vote, but by
electors chosen by the states. Most citizens could not vote.
Those who could were deemed the most prudential and far-seeing of
their fellows. They owned land, headed households, and were
highly educated. And they were to think only of the security,
stability, and liberty of the country, and the wellbeing of
For nonvoters, their liberty was to be secure no matter who
won. They would have no access to special rights. Yet their
rights to person, property, and self government were never in
doubt. For all practical purposes, they could forget about the
president and, for that matter, the rest of the federal
government. It might as well not exist.
People did not pay taxes to it. It did not tell people how to
conduct their lives. It did not fight foreign wars, regulate
their schools, pay for their retirement, surround their homes
with police, bail out their business, provide for their
retirement, much less employ them to spy on their neighbors.
Political controversies were centered at the level of the
state and local governments. That included taxes, education,
crime, welfare, and even immigration. The only exception was the
general defense of the nation. The president was responsible for
that. But with a small standing army, it was a minor position,
absent a congressionally declared war.
There were two types of legislators in Washington: members of
the House of Representatives, a huge body of statesmen that was
to grow larger with the population, and members of the Senate,
who were elected by powerful state legislatures. The Congress's
main power consisted of keeping the executive's power in check.
Under the original design, the politics of this country was
to be extremely decentralized, but the community to be united in
another respect: by an economy that is perfectly free and a
system of trade that allows people to voluntarily associate,
innovate, save, and work based on mutual benefit. The economy was
not to be controlled, hindered, or even influenced by any central
People were allowed to keep what they earned. The money people
used to trade with was sold, stable, and backed by specie.
Capitalists could start and close businesses at will. Workers
were free to take any job they wanted at any wage or any age.
Business's only mission was to serve the consumer and make a
There were no labor controls, mandated benefits, payroll
taxes, special benefits, or other regulations. For this reason,
everyone was to specialize in what he did best, and the peaceful
exchanges of voluntary enterprise caused ever-widening waves of
prosperity throughout the country.
What shape the economy took--whether agricultural, industrial,
or high-tech--was to be of no concern to the federal government.
Trade was allowed to take place naturally and freely, and
everyone understood that it was better managed by property
holders than by public office holders. The federal government
couldn't impose internal taxes if it wanted to, much less taxes
on income, and trade with foreign nations was to be rivalrous and
free. The only tariffs were to be revenue tariffs, and thus
necessarily low to maximize trade and therefore revenue.
If by chance this system of liberty began to break down, he
states had an option: to separate themselves from the federal
government and form a new government. The law of the land was
widely understood to make secession possible. In fact, it was
part of the guarantee required to make the Constitution possible
to begin with.
This system reinforced the fact that the president is not the
president of the American people, much less their commander in
chief, but merely the president of the United States. He
served only with their permission and only as the largely
symbolic head of this voluntary unity of prior political
In this society without central management, a vast network of
private associations served as the dominant social authority. The
churches, unrestricted by federal intrusion, wielded vast
influence over public and private life, as did civic groups and
community leaders of all sorts. They created a huge patchwork of
associations and a true diversity in which every individual and
group found a place.
This combination of political decentralization, economic
liberty, free trade, and self government created, day by day, the
most prosperous, peaceful, and just society the world has ever
In such a system, there would be little at stake in the
upcoming November election. No matter which way it went, we would
retain our liberty and property, and our families would never be
bothered by any central government.
Today, however, the Washington, D.C.-area is the richest in
the country because it's host to the biggest government on the
planet. It has more employees, resources, and powers at its
disposal than any on the face of the earth. It regulates in finer
detail than any other government. Its military empire is the
largest and most far-flung in history. Just its tax take dwarfs
the total wealth of the old Soviet Union.
The only remedy is to restore the classical liberal society of
the framers. We do not need, as the media claim, the "strong
leadership" of a bully with a pulpit. The man for the job is
someone who can disappear, and help make the rest of the federal
government vanish with him.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president and founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute