Another Inauguration of the Imperial Presidency

America’s first president George Washington noted that:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

And 19th-century English historian and political philosopher Lord Acton incisively stated that:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
—Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 1887

The inauguration of a new President of the United States is an immense spectacle. Despite the fact that the U.S. was specifically founded as a republic opposed to monarchism, royalism, and absolutism, the U.S. Presidency has become the Imperial Presidency, projecting power globally without restraint and by far the most powerful position in the world today, dwarfing the powers of the greatest emperors and kings of yesteryear. Moreover, the U.S. government is almost entirely the Presidency. The budgets of the Congress and the Supreme Court are virtually inconsequential compared with that of the Executive Branch. The Presidency after all includes all of the departments of the federal government, including Treasury, Health and Human Services, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, Defense, etc.; the IRS, CIA, NSA, NASA and the FBI; all of the U.S.’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, spy satellites, aircraft carriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and hundreds of military bases worldwide; the huge tracts of federal lands, minerals, highways, and waterways; all of the regulatory agencies including the FTC, SEC, FDA, OSHA, and EPA; the list is in fact just too long to even recount here and to create an organizational chart defies imagination.

But to be so pervasive and so powerful, the Imperial Presidency is far, far more. For most Americans, the Presidency has become their sovereign king and father figure who stands above and beyond us mere citizens in order to oversee our lives and our well-being and assuage our fears (please see our book, Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government, by Senior Fellow Robert Higgs).  As such the Imperial Presidency is really a secular religious “divinity,” an earthly “messiah” who many believe will save them from all forms of harm by wielding government power against others, even if this means trampling on their lives, liberties and property. As a result, around the Presidency has grown a cult of power and personality not unlike that of many rulers of the past. The spectacle and circus of a Presidential inauguration is really only an inkling of what we all witness day in and day out in the media of the cultural trappings of the glorification and worship of the Imperial Presidency.

But stripped of such superficial pomp and vanity what do we really have? Doesn’t each president after all take an oath of office to protect and preserve the U.S. Constitution and its limits on Executive Power? So how do George W. Bush and his predecessors stack up in upholding this pledge? Have they increased or decreased peace, prosperity, and liberty, and upheld the Constitution in the process? Our new book by Senior Fellow Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, could not be more timely in tracing the hypocrisy and folly of Presidential power-mongering. Will the incoming President Barack Obama have the integrity, insight, and common sense to begin dismantling the powers and trappings of what has become the Imperial Presidency? Only time will tell, but despite the rhetoric for “hope” and “change,” every indication now says that he will only fan the flames higher. After all, “power corrupts” and for the Imperial Presidency, “it is good to be King.”

David J. Theroux is Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute and Publisher of the quarterly journal, The Independent Review.
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