The Flaw in Obama's Phone and Pen Governance

For conservatives and Republicans, President Obama's insouciant approach to government, that he can do anything he wants using his phone and his pen, is maddening. One week his EPA is enveloping coal plants in a tangle of new regulation; next week he's emptying Guantanamo Bay at any cost. We respond by fulminating about lawlessness and the rule of law and snigger about the president's fecklessness when his actions descend into the farce of the Bowe Bergdahl affair.

It's easy to blame Obama for the lameness of his phone-and-pen governance and attribute it to his laziness. But Barack Obama is a politician; what politicians do is fight elections, and Barack Obama -- or his team -- is nothing if he is not good at winning elections, so he is not the first politician tempted to reduce governance to electoral posturing.

Joseph P. Schumpeter wrote over half a century ago that “the democratic method creates professional politicians whom it then turns into amateur administrators and 'statesmen.'”  This truth is celebrated in the British TV sitcom Yes, Minister in which the professional civil-service administrator Sir Humphrey Appleby runs rings around his politician boss Jim Hacker.

Anyway, Obama didn't learn his intellectual laziness on his own. The bigger problem is laziness of the whole gentry-liberal bubble itself. It can't be bothered to persuade; that's too hard and really beneath the dignity of the members of a ruling class. So it resorts to lies and bullying and executive orders, from ObamaCare to climate change to marriage equality. It can't be bothered to do the hard work of persuasion and coalition building.

Let's put the question in another way. Why would a normal president go to the work and the trouble of, e.g., getting bipartisan Congressional consensus to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the federal income tax as President Reagan did in 1986? Why did he go to the trouble of getting Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) to sponsor it? Why did he work so long and hard with Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that pushed the bill through the House?

I will tell you why. Because executive actions unsupported by legislation and bipartisan majorities can be reversed on January 21 on the year following a presidential election by a stroke of the pen. If you want to govern for the ages you want make repeal or reversal into something unthinkable, something that makes high-status gentry liberal women gasp, and that kind of governance requires the hard work of persuading the American people into a national consensus.

The second-rate politician is easily tempted into the short-cut of force. It's easy to see why. As I argue in “Government and the Technology of Power” any government is really nothing more than a guerrilla group written large. It has a monopoly of force in some territory and collects taxes to sustain its power and reward its supporters. But if it wants to become really big and powerful it must learn how to ease off on the force and taxation so that the people it governs can grow prosperous and deliver even more taxes. The interesting thing about governments is how seldom they get this. All they seem to know is force and the clunking fist. Barack Obama seems to think that the future of America depends on more taxes and regulation. Pune-born Brahmin Kshama Sawant thinks that the answer to low pay is for government to force businesses to pay $15 per hour.

The sweet spot for government is to tax and force just enough to stay in power and keep its supporters happy, but no more. When it does resort to force (for all legislation is force) it's best to dress the whole thing in the decent drapery of bipartisan consensus, and keep the administrative ukase hidden in reserve.

Why? Because every act of government is an act of force. If government is reversing an ancient injustice it is probably inaugurating a new one, for every act of government hurts someone. And unless the stabbing pain is neutralized by the analgesic of proclaimed consensus, it will grow into a rebellion of the body politic.

Obama is governing by phone and pen in a mad dash to implement every item on the liberal agenda before the clock strikes the end of the current liberal hour.  He is setting his supporters up for a demoralizing rout.

The idea of limited government is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism. It is merely practical. It says that force is a blunt instrument good only for cowing your enemy into submission whereas the whole point of human society is human flourishing. You can't make a flower bloom by bashing it into submission with a spade.

Christopher Chantrill @chrischantrill runs the go-to site on US government finances, usgovernmentspending.com. Also see his American Manifesto and get his Road to the Middle Class.

For conservatives and Republicans, President Obama's insouciant approach to government, that he can do anything he wants using his phone and his pen, is maddening. One week his EPA is enveloping coal plants in a tangle of new regulation; next week he's emptying Guantanamo Bay at any cost. We respond by fulminating about lawlessness and the rule of law and snigger about the president's fecklessness when his actions descend into the farce of the Bowe Bergdahl affair.

It's easy to blame Obama for the lameness of his phone-and-pen governance and attribute it to his laziness. But Barack Obama is a politician; what politicians do is fight elections, and Barack Obama -- or his team -- is nothing if he is not good at winning elections, so he is not the first politician tempted to reduce governance to electoral posturing.

Joseph P. Schumpeter wrote over half a century ago that “the democratic method creates professional politicians whom it then turns into amateur administrators and 'statesmen.'”  This truth is celebrated in the British TV sitcom Yes, Minister in which the professional civil-service administrator Sir Humphrey Appleby runs rings around his politician boss Jim Hacker.

Anyway, Obama didn't learn his intellectual laziness on his own. The bigger problem is laziness of the whole gentry-liberal bubble itself. It can't be bothered to persuade; that's too hard and really beneath the dignity of the members of a ruling class. So it resorts to lies and bullying and executive orders, from ObamaCare to climate change to marriage equality. It can't be bothered to do the hard work of persuasion and coalition building.

Let's put the question in another way. Why would a normal president go to the work and the trouble of, e.g., getting bipartisan Congressional consensus to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the federal income tax as President Reagan did in 1986? Why did he go to the trouble of getting Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) to sponsor it? Why did he work so long and hard with Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that pushed the bill through the House?

I will tell you why. Because executive actions unsupported by legislation and bipartisan majorities can be reversed on January 21 on the year following a presidential election by a stroke of the pen. If you want to govern for the ages you want make repeal or reversal into something unthinkable, something that makes high-status gentry liberal women gasp, and that kind of governance requires the hard work of persuading the American people into a national consensus.

The second-rate politician is easily tempted into the short-cut of force. It's easy to see why. As I argue in “Government and the Technology of Power” any government is really nothing more than a guerrilla group written large. It has a monopoly of force in some territory and collects taxes to sustain its power and reward its supporters. But if it wants to become really big and powerful it must learn how to ease off on the force and taxation so that the people it governs can grow prosperous and deliver even more taxes. The interesting thing about governments is how seldom they get this. All they seem to know is force and the clunking fist. Barack Obama seems to think that the future of America depends on more taxes and regulation. Pune-born Brahmin Kshama Sawant thinks that the answer to low pay is for government to force businesses to pay $15 per hour.

The sweet spot for government is to tax and force just enough to stay in power and keep its supporters happy, but no more. When it does resort to force (for all legislation is force) it's best to dress the whole thing in the decent drapery of bipartisan consensus, and keep the administrative ukase hidden in reserve.

Why? Because every act of government is an act of force. If government is reversing an ancient injustice it is probably inaugurating a new one, for every act of government hurts someone. And unless the stabbing pain is neutralized by the analgesic of proclaimed consensus, it will grow into a rebellion of the body politic.

Obama is governing by phone and pen in a mad dash to implement every item on the liberal agenda before the clock strikes the end of the current liberal hour.  He is setting his supporters up for a demoralizing rout.

The idea of limited government is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism. It is merely practical. It says that force is a blunt instrument good only for cowing your enemy into submission whereas the whole point of human society is human flourishing. You can't make a flower bloom by bashing it into submission with a spade.

Christopher Chantrill @chrischantrill runs the go-to site on US government finances, usgovernmentspending.com. Also see his American Manifesto and get his Road to the Middle Class.

RECENT VIDEOS