Mises Daily Articles
We Don't Need a President
Nothing could be better for the country than cancelling the 2008 election. Leave the office of the presidency empty.
I can see only one possible justification for having a president of the United States: to preside over the dismantling of the federal government. If you think this is a radical idea, think again. This is, in part, what people have long voted for, even if they never actually get it. I can hardly remember a time when a president has been elected who didn't promise to get the government off our backs.
In one way, this agenda makes no sense, of course. You don't hire a CEO to drive a company into bankruptcy. You don't appoint a pastor to shrink a congregation. Why should we expect a president to dismantle the thing that gives him power and fame, and his allies huge wealth? Well, realistically, you can't. But it's the best hope we have within the framework of conventional politics.
The irony is that most presidents get elected on the prospect that they will curb power. It's true of George Bush, who promised domestic cuts and a humble foreign policy. Clinton was also elected on the promise of middle-class tax cuts. We can go back and back and see it was true for the first Bush, for Reagan, for Carter, for Nixon, and so on.
For that matter, FDR himself denounced government spending during this first campaign. "I accuse the present administration [Hoover's] of being the greatest spending administration in peace times in all our history," and added, "On my part, I ask you very simply to assign to me the task of reducing the annual operating expenses of your national government." He further denounced the government for "fostering regimentation without stint or limit."
It was even true with George Washington, who had made innumerable speeches on the evil of tyranny only to take power and use it to the benefit of the powerful. Even Jefferson succumbed with his mistaken Louisiana Purchase, though he later entertained the possibility of a salutary breakup of the United States.
And so on it goes. And it will happen again, despite all promises.
Folks, there is something wrong with this model of governance, not just current policy but the whole structure. We might even argue that the error goes back to the Constitution, a document that created new government powers unprecedented in Colonial history, and put the government in charge of restraining itself. It set up competitive divisions within government under the presumption that they would keep each other in check. Instead, they cooperated toward mutual expansion, especially after the federal power seizure called the Civil War.
Part of the problem dates to a core error within liberal theory: the belief that it was possible to create a government that was an extension of society, thanks to the relentless input of the people via democratic institutions. What this model did instead is enlist the public as part of their own destruction. And it created confusion about who precisely is to blame when things don't work out. Under democracy, aren't we the government? Aren’t we doing this to ourselves?
Let's draw on another aspect of old-time liberal theory as a means of finding a way out of this mess. There are two additional contributions that liberalism made. It taught that society is capable of self-management, and that government is not the reason for order in society. Summing up the old liberal position, Thomas Paine said:
A great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society, and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has in man and all the parts of a civilized community upon each other create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their laws; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything that is ascribed to government.
If we would be true to this line of thought, we should propose the unthinkable: cancel the election. This has never before been so urgent. Neither party will cut government in a way that is desperately needed. Instead, they offer a left- or right-tinged Americanized socialism or fascism. One promises domestic expansion and foreign reduction; the other promises foreign expansion and domestic reduction. The inevitable compromise: expand both domestically and internationally.
In addition, whatever the new president does will make our growing economic problems worse. The economic interventions they propose will add to our troubles, whether that means expanding inflation, taxes, controls, or debt. Another war is unthinkable, but probably inevitable. You can already detect it in the aggressive trajectory towards Iran. More business regulation can only dampen the fires of free enterprise, which are our saving grace today.
The best solution would be a government that would destroy itself. The second best solution would be a government that does nothing at all – then, at least, matters will not get worse. This is what canceling the election would do. It would introduce enough confusion and chaos to keep government from acting either domestically or internationally, which would be a wonderful thing.
There is also the matter of public will. We pretend as if the person who is elected enjoys the support of a majority. Nonsense. Most people who can vote do not vote, and who can blame them? Those who do vote are most likely voting against the other guy and not for a positive program. The person elected will enjoy a mandate of perhaps 5–10% of the population that actively supports the agenda. I say: make the new president their president but not our president.
It's true that what I'm proposing constitutes a purely negative agenda. So let's look to a positive goal. This country is too large to be governed from the center. It is long past time that it be broken into ever smaller pieces, even to the size of the world's smallest nations. In that way, the US government will cease to be a menace to its citizens and to the world. Prosperity will be assured in the same way it always has: through peace and free trade with all.
But what about the Constitution? Let Jefferson speak: "We have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable…. But can they be made unchangeable?... I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to person, not to things."
It is highly significant that Jefferson, when he wrote his own epitaph, wanted to be remembered for the Declaration of Independence, for the Virginia statute on religious freedom, and for founding the University of Virginia. That he was a two-term president is not listed.