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.

Thus czar advocates are authoritarians. But what of critics? Unfortunately, on the essential point, they’re no better. Their typical criticism hinges on who confirms and supervises the czars.  They ignore — and thus concede — the real issue. Consider for instance this argument from a column by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX):

As the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, I oversee legislation and agencies that cover policy areas as vast and varied as trade, technology, transit, consumer protection and commercial regulation. As many as 10 of the 32 czars functionally fall under my committee's jurisdiction. Yet neither I nor the committee chairman have clear authority to compel these czars to appear before our panel and report what they are doing. The Obama administration presented only two of these officials for our consideration before they assumed their duties. We have had no opportunity to probe the others' credentials. (my emphasis)

Preserving our system of checks and balances is undoubtedly vital, but only in the context of our nation’s founding principle: the protection of individual rights. In the quote above, the real question is:  Why should the government run such vast areas of our lives? Why should a czar or committee meddle when consenting adults wish to trade? Why should they decide whether potentially life-saving stem cell research is to be allowed? Why should they forcibly take one individual’s taxes to subsidize another’s “green job”?

Fundamentally czars represent undue authority over citizens’ lives. This isn’t made better by making the usurping authority an elected committee. Rather than standing for a valid principle, Hutchinson and her kind are simply engaged in a turf battle to determine who gets to control the government’s myriad rights violations. Accordingly, czar critics are also authoritarians.

But if they’re wrong, if government authority shouldn’t replace its citizens’ evaluations nor rule their lives, what’s the alternative? After all, don’t we need the “coordination” and “catalysts” Reeder espouses?

Yes and no. As the Founding Fathers so brilliantly recognized, society must have an organizing principle, but that doesn’t mean we need authoritarianism. For instance, in any legitimate sense of “coordinate,” the free market is the only mechanism by which everyone’s actual demands and concerns — ones they’re willing to work and pay for — can be accounted for and reconciled.  Indeed there’s a whole literature showing how economic calculation and coordination are only possible under a free market.  This is why authoritarian regimes, such as exist under socialism and communism, necessarily fail economically.

More importantly, the only “catalyst” of science and trade is freedom. No progress, life, or happiness is possible without the freedom to think and pursue one’s own values and goals. To the extent that government, whether by czars or otherwise, restricts and removes our freedoms, it makes life worse.  If it goes far enough, as it did in Russia — the original land of czars — all that’s left to the individual is misery, mass starvation, and death.

Government’s proper role is not as an authority which sets, replaces, or invalidates its citizens’ judgments and values. On the contrary, government exists solely to protect each individual’s freedom to choose and pursue values. That’s the fundamental — and irreconcilable — difference between a country of czars and a country of rights.