No imperial presidency

By George Reisman
web posted February 1999

As sordid, distasteful, and small as the Clinton scandal is with respect to the details of the President's personal life, it has nonetheless become politically momentous. What depends on the outcome of the President's impeachment trial before the Senate is whether or not the political nature of the presidency of the United States is to be changed from that of an institution proper to a republic to one of imperial status, attributing to the President the stature of a quasi-divinity.

This question is not a new one. It has been present at least since the time of Franklin Roosevelt. What is present now is whether or not the decades-long movement toward an imperial presidency is to receive a new and powerful impetus or a major setback.

The supporters of the President and, apparently, a majority of the American public, believe that the President

should be exempt from laws and sanctions to which ordinary citizens are subject. Thus, while some citizens are in jail for the commission of perjury and indeed, in a few cases, for its commission in almost exactly the same kind of circumstances as the President, and while many others have been fired from their jobs for such far lesser acts of deceit as having answered falsely a question on an employment application, the President of the United States, we are told, must be allowed to remain in office.

Different rules, we are told, apply to him than to ordinary citizens. Indeed, his exemption from the legal and moral sanctions applicable to ordinary citizens, should, we were told just a few months ago, extend to his being exempt from the reporting of possibly criminal acts committed by him in the presence of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect him.

What underlies this attempted elevation of the presidency to a level that its occupant is deemed to be above the law and ordinary morality is the public's conviction that the office bestows nothing less than god-like powers. Evidence of this belief practically leaps from the public opinion polls so often cited in favor of the need to retain Mr. Clinton in office: The United States is enjoying considerable prosperity, or at least the appearance of such. (I use the word "appearance" because much of what today is assumed to represent prosperity, namely, the great rise in the stock market, may turn out in retrospect to have been nothing more than an inflationary bubble.) The leading cause of this real or imagined prosperity is assumed to be what? The inventiveness and enterprising spirit, the saving and investment, the labor and effort of America's tens of millions of individual citizens, living under the still considerable freedoms bequeathed to them by the country's founders? No! The leading cause is assumed to be the work of one, indispensable man, whom we in this country still call President, but, who, given the way in which he is apparently viewed by a majority of today's American people, might just as well be called Caesar--or Pharaoh! It is to him that the prosperity is attributed.

In fact, of course, the prosperity of the American people, or of any people anywhere, at any time, does not come from a divine, or divinely inspired, leader. It comes from the people themselves, acting separately and individually, in mutually beneficial, voluntary cooperation in their ordinary day-to-day economic activities. The only contribution that governments can ever make to prosperity is to provide protection for individual rights, including property rights and the freedom of contract, and then to stand aside as the individual citizens pursue their material prosperity and happiness. To whatever extent Mr. Clinton may in some respects have improved the protection of individual rights (by reducing government interference in the economic system), he deserves credit. But any estimate of the actual contribution of Mr. Clinton to America's prosperity cannot fail to include the enormous harm he has done to the practice of medicine in the United States, through the unleashing of the HMO's on the American people.

Of course, in and of itself the economic harm that Mr. Clinton has done is no more relevant to the question of his removal from office than any economic good he may have helped to make possible. What is relevant is that his status before the law not be deemed superior to that of any ordinary person and certainly that it not be deemed so on the basis of any alleged possession of divine powers over the economic system of the United States.

A Senate vote to acquit Mr. Clinton, despite his obvious guilt--a guilt publicly acknowledged by all those in his own party who call for a congressional censure of him rather than his removal from office--will signify that the President is, indeed, above the law and morality applicable to ordinary citizens. It will thus substantially add to and solidify the imperial trappings that have come to surround the office of the presidency. Future occupants of the office will know that the principle has been clearly established that they are above the law. Their prospective critics and congressional opponents will know it too. The presidency and its powers will loom even larger than they do now. It will be harder to prevail against the wishes of a president than it is now, for he will have been more securely established than ever before as a virtually superhuman personage.

Ironically, at the same time that the presidency is raised in this way to imperial, god-like status, the status of the United States as a country will be correspondingly debased. Like a sleazy business that advertises "Poor credit? No credit? No problem!," an acquittal of Mr. Clinton will be an advertisement that even if you are a liar, a cheat, and a felon, you can still be the President of the United States. In the future that too will be no problem, for it will have been established that such behavior "does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense."

No one can reasonably believe that such an outcome is necessary for the good of the United States and the American people and that to achieve it, the members of the Senate must ignore the undeniable evidence.

George Reisman is Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management in Los Angeles, and is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, Jameson Books, Ottawa, Illinois, 1996.




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