Czar Wars: Can the Rebels Fight Back?

In recent years our nation has been beset by a proliferation of political “czars.” Pay czars determine compensation. Auto czars hire and fire CEOs. Last year the Van Jones fiasco captured headlines.  There’s even been talk of a health insurance czar. Yet while each of the individual news items received appropriate attention from better commentators, the phenomenon as a whole has not. Looked at from a wider perspective, there’s something troubling about Americans’ new willingness to accept and submit to authority.  If we’re to turn the country around, this is an issue we must understand and confront.

The term “czar” was first used pejoratively in the 19th century, but the actual position only entered American politics during FDR’s presidency. Using the Great Depression and World War II as justification, and as part of his massive New Deal, FDR appointed 12 czars. Yet despite his personal popularity, the nation wasn’t ready for what czars represent, so after FDR’s death and the end of WWII, subsequent administrations had relatively few czars. Bill Clinton’s presidency saw their first revival when he appointed seven czars. It became a boom under Bush (35) and currently Obama has 38 sitting in the czarport.

A first indication that something’s amiss with the whole concept of czars is its deliberate fuzziness. There’s no clear definition of czars, neither legally nor functionally. No one can say what they are, nor what they do; to the point that the numbers given above are merely “consensus” estimates. When government embraces this type of ambiguity — and citizens accept it — it’s a sign of growing authoritarianism. It signals that citizens don’t deem it necessary to understand and judge government power; they’ll uncritically swallow any proposal or dictate.

This observation notwithstanding, let’s consider proponents’ arguments in defense of czars. They begin by protesting that any concern is overwrought, since czars typically have little direct executive authority and minimal budgets. The unilateral and unchallengeable powers exercised by the pay and car czars are enough to dispel this particular line of defense.

But, proponents continue, czars are necessary “coordinators, facilitators, catalysts” (as former OMB functionary Franklin Reeder puts it). In other words, given the already massive machinery of government — its plethora of administrations, agencies, boards, bureaus, committees, commissions, departments, etc., etc. — another level of government is needed to “catalyze” their effectiveness.

Shouldn’t this very argument give its proponents pause? On their logic, the bigger the government, the more new czars and facilitators it needs — precisely because it’s already too big and unwieldy.  (This is by no means hypothetical: Clinton saw the need to appoint a czar czar!)

No principle limits such a government. It grows continuously, in whatever direction the current president deems “important.”  Clinton appointed e-commerce and health care czars; Bush named abstinence, faith-based, and science czars; Obama added green-jobs, global warming, and performance czars. Earlier czar offices are often held over, further embedding government sprawl.

The flip side of this government growth is the shrinking of the domains in which private citizens can make their own decisions and pursue their own values. The individual’s thoughts are marginalized — primacy is given to whatever the president and his cronies happen to think. Science czars push science in directions they prefer, regulatory czars restrict affairs they deem objectionable, etc. Substituting the government’s judgment for that of private individuals is the essence of authoritarianism.