The contemporary British, Canadian, and American political systems come from the same democratic root, but have very different ways of separating and balancing power. How does the American presidential system compare to the parliamentary system? Does the government we have today function anything like the government the Founding Fathers envisioned?
Frank H. Buckley joins Trevor Burrus this week for a discussion on his book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.
Is it accurate to say we have a “crown government?” What’s the danger in giving the president legislative power? Do presidential and parliamentary regimes tend to attract different types of leaders?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Buckley’s newest book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (2014).
Gene Healy’s book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (2009) also explores these themes.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is Frank H. Buckley, Foundation Professor at George Mason University School of Law. He is the author of among other books The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Frank.
Frank Buckley: Well, thanks for having me Trevor. Great to be here.
Trevor Burrus: Now in the first chapter of The Once and Future King, you write that, “The long arc of American constitutional government has bent from the monarchical principle of the colonial period to congressional government, then to the separation of power and finally back again to crown government and the rule by a single person.” Is it accurate to say that we have crown government in the United States?
Frank Buckley: Well, we certainly have something increasingly like that. We have a movement towards an all-powerful president and it so resembles government back in the days of an absolute Stuart monarch that I thought crown government was an apt description.
Trevor Burrus: And this means they have the powers of war and all the kind of things – are they the same powers that the colonial revolutionary people objected to, that the king had?
Frank Buckley: Well, people like John Adams were absolutely outraged by for example Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts in which there was an element of self-interest for Adams. The governors had their coterie of people. They were able to through appointing people to special places maintain their control over the legislature. That was all stuff that the revolutionaries hated. They saw it as corruption and they saw it as what was wrong with Britain and they wanted something purer and cleaner for America which is not quite what we got.
Trevor Burrus: Well, interestingly, it’s not just a book about America because you kind of are asking a question about how did this come about what you call crown government in Britain and Canada, which are two closely aligned or at least historically related systems.
Frank Buckley: Right. Well, I was arbitraged in the endless fascination Americans have in everything Canadian.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean Putin is really quite the top of the score. So you would say that a similar thing is happening in Canada and Britain, that there’s extreme power residing in one person or one entity.
Frank Buckley: Well, here’s what happened. I mean the official story of the American constitution which is mostly a fiction headed that what the framers really wanted was a purist system of separation of powers. But to the extent they got that, and they had that for a long time, separation of powers is inherently unstable.
When two wrestlers walk into a ring, we expect one only to walk out. The other is going to be dragged out. So in Britain, when started with something like a separation of powers, but then what happened after 1832 in the great Reform Act was the House of Commons became all-powerful.
When the Canadians looked at what was going on, they had a choice between America which they knew intimately and Britain and they decided on the British form of government and if you read the Canadian constitution, it’s very strange. I mean it’s written as if Canada is a complete monarchy where the queen or the governor-general has all the power in the world. There was one moment in the constitutional debates where somebody said, “Well, what’s that all about?” and the fellow who would be the prime minister said, “Well, that’s just the way we do things. It doesn’t matter.” I mean it’s going to be run by the prime minister and the House of Commons.
Trevor Burrus: That’s kind of interesting. You think maybe one of the reasons for this is because – we threw off a king with a war so there was a fair amount of maybe animosity. So we had to be like – we had to break away and say we don’t have this but for Canada, it was much more peaceful. We can have this – and she can still be in our money or at least it was Victoria at the time. So it was a she. The monarch can be on our money and we really don’t hate them that much.
Frank Buckley: Well, for the Canadians as for the British, what they were not were theoreticians. What they were, were practical politicians as were people in Philadelphia in 1787. They just wanted something that they were familiar with and something which worked and they saw how the American government had apparently broken down in the Civil War and they decided in 1867, well, that’s not quite what we want.
Trevor Burrus: Well, let’s go back to Philadelphia actually because you kind of – you go through – if you really want to read a great account of how the governments of these – these three countries were created or changed, that’s definitely in this book. So if you kind of go through a good amount of what happened in Philadelphia. So can you walk us through – this is hard at the beginning because we have James Madison. So you start there in May of 1787 or we can go back to the Annapolis Convention of 1786 but in May of 1787. Madison is in Philadelphia and he has got some designs about what he wants to happen.
Frank Buckley: Well, if you really want to go back, you go back to the Alexandria Convention, designed from Alexandria …
But seriously I mean I think I’m telling a story that is quite inconsistent with the way most people think about the American constitution, how it was created. Certainly the historians understand that. The political theorists for the most part don’t have a clue and anybody who tells you that it’s Madison’s constitution is advertising his ignorance.
Madison came to town with the idea of a very different constitution which would be one where the people would elect the house and the house would choose the senate and both together would choose the president and he got what he wanted. I mean that’s exactly what happened in Canada.
So if you call him the father of the constitution, you have to be clear which country we’re talking about because if you’re talking about the American constitution, this is one of those cases not unknown in delivery rooms where the father bore little resemblance to the child.
Trevor Burrus: And so Madison, this idea of – it was – filtration I think is the word he used of trying to make sure that – he thought that each successive level would filter out better people, but it looks kind of parliamentary as you say.
Frank Buckley: Yeah, it’s parliamentary in a sense that prime ministers are filtered out in that when you vote in Canada, you don’t vote for a prime minister. You vote for the local member of parliament and the members of parliament of the winning party get together and they choose the prime minister which is precisely the filtration idea which Madison had. It’s anti-democratic. Filtration was explicitly anti-democratic in Madison’s view because he like most of the framers really disliked democracy.
Trevor Burrus: And they created this republic instead but you also write and not aside from the filtration just for the senate and the house. But maybe one of the more surprising lines in your book is, “The modern presidential system with its separation of powers was an unexpected consequence of the democratization of American politics and not a prominent feature of the framers.”
Frank Buckley: Well, they didn’t expect that the president would be so all-powerful for a couple of reasons. One is they live in the 18th century and therefore they couldn’t anticipate the regulatory state. They couldn’t anticipate the modern media. They couldn’t anticipate the travel problems back then. I mean it was harder to get around in America at that time than it was in Roman times with Roman roads.
They couldn’t expect in other words that we would have anything like what we have today where presidents are elected with an Electoral College and it’s people voting. Instead what they thought was nobody would ever get a majority in the Electoral College and when that happens, the choice of who will be president is kicked to the house voting by state.
So in other words, you would get a House of Representatives picking the president which is like what they have in Canada and it didn’t turn out that way because of revolutions in technology and communication and in short, the modern constitution we have is parasitic upon changes in technology.
Trevor Burrus: But you go through – it’s interesting when you go through a lot of the votes. They vote many times on how the president can be created and then it’s kind of put off to the end of the convention when they actually decide how this is done but they decide to ask you about popular election of president. They ask you about choosing by the house, choosing by the senate, all the – and many different ways. They have a cycling of votes that’s kind of interesting.
Frank Buckley: Yeah. And who was the mastermind who put it all together? I mean my vote would be for Gouvernour Morris as the real father of the constitution. What happened was the conference – the convention starts in mid-May and it goes on for four months and up until September 4, three and a half months in, were quite agreed congress will appoint the president.
Then what happens is a committee was set up to finish some of the small details that are left outstanding and they come back with something that’s utterly different from what they had before. They come back with – really with their present system for picking the president and in all its convoluted glory and they present it to the delegates and the delegates wonder, “What’s going on?”
Gouvernour Morris who’s probably the guy who put it together tries to explain it to them and he says it’s a compromise and people look at him. They say, well, we see that the president will probably be appointed by congress. That’s OK. That’s more or less what we wanted. They didn’t anticipate things.
Trevor Burrus: And then some of them did – some of them seem to think that the electors, the members of the Electoral College would vote their independent judgment about whether – so it wasn’t …
Frank Buckley: Yeah, that was filtration as well and that aspect of the constitution was praised by both Madison and Hamilton in the federalist papers. One other difference introduced at the last moment has to do with impeachment. Now you want to get rid of a prime minister. It’s just a simple vote in the house majority.
You want to get rid of a president and it’s basically impossible. Why is it impossible? It’s impossible because you need two-thirds of the senate to convict, right? After September 4, it was just the majority and the change is so fundamental but nobody picked up on it for the next – for the last two weeks of the convention. There was just too much going on. They wanted to go home. But that arguably is as important as anything else in the structure of the constitution.
Put it this way. Sadly Andrew Johnson wasn’t impeached. I mean I should like to see presidents impeached more often. Yeah. I mean for high crimes and misdemeanors and for low crimes and just for the spirit of the thing.
But the vote to remove Bill Clinton was 50-50. Now, we’ve been living under that old constitution. That would have been enough to remove Bill Clinton if the deciding vote had been cast in favor of the removable by the then vice president Al Gore. Wouldn’t that have been fun to watch?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and that would be kind of like a no-confidence vote.
Frank Buckley: It would be much easier to get rid of a losing president. I mean we might have kissed good-bye to George Bush in 2007, to Obama in 2011.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that Washington’s presence there – a lot of historians would say that George Washington’s presence in the convention – and everyone understands that he was going to be president, made them A, not think about the article to the presidential powers as much as they thought about other parts of it and B, not put enough protection in there for people who weren’t George Washington, and know the character of George Washington.
Frank Buckley: Everybody thought so at the time. Washington was an absolutely commanding figure, really the indispensable American, a person entirely absent from the constitutional histories of Britain and Canada. Nobody then was as powerful as Washington and even today, people ask, “What would Washington do?” Nobody asks, “What would Billy Pitt do?”
Trevor Burrus: Billy Pitt. Oh, William Pitt from …
Frank Buckley: Pitt the Younger. Remember there was a quarrel in The Simpsons as to whether the Duke of Wellington or Pitt the Younger was the best prime minister and Homer slices it out.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s a good segue to go to Britain. Now the British system, maybe we kind of alluded to earlier but I wanted to get a little bit more into. It seems that a lot of significant parliamentary changes or at least with the prime minister in the relation to the king occurred during the American Revolution and right after. Then further changes occurred in 1830s and we’ve talked a little bit about how the system evolved in Britain.
Frank Buckley: Well, it was a slow evolution and it really began with Pitt the Younger, resting control of the finances away from George the Third, who conveniently went mad during this period. But by 1832, things have changed out. It became clear that the House of Lords didn’t really count for much and the king didn’t really count for much. The last time the monarch exercised his or her veto was Queen Anne in 1711. So that’s pretty much gone.
Trevor Burrus: And that’s still true today.
Frank Buckley: Well, yes, although I will tell you something. The Queen is ultimately the last defense against usurpation by a dictator. If some reason parliament decided to go out of business or give all power to a dictator, you still required the consent of the queen or the monarch for that to happen.
Here that role would be played by the Supreme Court, but ultimately the queen has that residual power. It’s not all ceremony. There’s still something left of her political power in that respect, but only in a case so extreme, one could scarcely imagine it.
Trevor Burrus: So we had William Pitt and then in the 1830s, there was a huge problem with representation in pocket districts and boroughs. Old Sarum had a representative but I don’t think anyone lived there. I’ve been to Old Sarum. No one lives there. I can guarantee. It has been quite a while.
Frank Buckley: Old Sarum is a hill near Salisbury. But the constituencies in Britain at that point had been set up in the 16th century and one of them had been washed to sea for example. So nobody lived there and two people lived in Sarum. But they still got to pick their member of parliament. Of course the choice of who would get into parliament at that point depended upon local aristocrats or the king. It was anything but democratic. But nevertheless, Britain was a society where people could rise. It was – Britain never practiced democracy as a theory but always practiced it as an art.
It is in part the British inheritance and years of colonial self-rule in Britain that helps to explain I think why the American Revolution was successful.
Trevor Burrus: And now we’re at – after the 1830s reforms, we have no house – I mean the House of Lords is pretty much ceremony.
Frank Buckley: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: And we have a more powerful – you think than originally intended prime minister and House of Commons.
Frank Buckley: Well, nothing was …
Trevor Burrus: Of course.
Frank Buckley: Things just grew like topsy. But there was a remarkable switch and as I say and in Britain and parliamentary countries, the House of Commons becomes all-powerful and the tendency in presidential countries is for the president to become all-powerful. One of the things I did in the books and some at George Mason and do number crunching was to compare how both of them fare on measures of liberty. I took a popular generally accepted measure of how countries are free and what I discovered was being presidential is really bad if you like liberty.
Trevor Burrus: This is for …
Frank Buckley: Well, there are about 90 presidential countries and about 60 democratic parliamentary countries and then there are a bunch of really horrible countries that I didn’t get into. But roughly, it’s – two billion people live with a presidential system and two billion people live with what I call the Anglo-Canadian model which has begun in England and first exported to Canada and then throughout the world. The Anglo-Canadian model is vastly superior as I say in terms of protecting liberty.
Trevor Burrus: Now, let’s talk about some of the reasons why. You list many of them with the characteristics of the president. So we have the separation of powers in America which is an issue for aggrandizing power in the president. So we have presidential legislative power. That’s America. Can we talk a little bit about what that is?
Frank Buckley: Well, I think the first thing you want to do is take a look at what some of the anti-presidentialists have to say here in the United States. They worry about things like regulatory reform or whatever and the point is there is a tendency towards concentration of power in a political leader under any system, whether it’s Britain, Canada or in the United States.
The regulatory state tends to produce a very, very powerful political leader, prime minister or president, so does the modern media. The question then is, “Which system is better able to constrain an overreaching political leader?”
And things like the – the fact that you have to meet the House of Commons and possibility of a vote of no confidence, constrain prime ministers and that’s absent here. So Obama can say for example if they don’t want to pass it, “I’ve got a pen.”
Trevor Burrus: But both sides – the Canadian, the British and the American system all have this regulatory state to some degree.
Frank Buckley: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Is it worse in America, do you think?
Frank Buckley: Only in one respect and that is because America is richer than any place else. I mean I expect that they have for example an Estonian EPA but if somebody has a problem about wetlands and Estonia, I sort of see them picking up the phone and telephoning the Estonian EPA and there are three people in the room. One of them has a manual typewriter and they don’t have anything to – they can’t do anything whereas here, you have a – hundreds of thousands of EPA lawyers with the absolute desire to put you in jail.
Trevor Burrus: This is definitely true. Another part of the presidential power you discussed is the non-enforceability powers. Another one of these crown government things that they’re – they can now not enforce laws passed by Congress and there’s little that Congress can do about it seemingly.
Frank Buckley: Yeah. One of the most fascinating things that’s happening right now is a case called Texas v. U.S. which is the attempt by the State of Texas and other states to get – to force the president to adhere to the U.S. – not Texan but U.S. Constitution and what Obama has done is Obama has – really through not an executive order but a memorandum through his homeland security secretary, he has created basically what really looks like legislation offering something like amnesty, work permits for about four to five million people. It so much looked like just pure legislation that I found it really quite shocking and I expected in fact that the Supreme Court would do something about it.
Now with the death of Scalia, one doesn’t expect that to happen, in which case one would revert to the 5th Circuit decision which struck it down. But you know what? Shortly after the first trial judgment in the case, Obama said, “That’s OK. I’m not going to deport the men away.”
So the difference is there are no work permits but nobody is going to be deported. So the thing is, how do you force a president to enforce the laws? I mean you can’t issue a mandamus order saying, “Obama do this.” I mean it has been done. It has been done for example when courts have ordered mayors to desegragate and things like that. But at the level of the grand constitutional theory, it’s hard to see the Supreme Court even had Red Scalia there to do that.
Trevor Burrus: Now compare that to a parliamentary system.
Frank Buckley: In a parliamentary system, firstly there would be no need because what you would be talking about is control of parliament by a prime minister who – the leader of a party in majority typically. So they pass legislation.
Trevor Burrus: So he would be able to …
Frank Buckley: He would be able to do what he wants but if he mucks it up in some way, I mean he still has to meet the house and run for election. There’s a form of daily accountability which really doesn’t exist here. I mean a good example would be the Benghazi hearings, which were very important here in Washington and probably not too many other places. But in parliament for example, the opposition has the ability to keep the prime minister’s feet to the fire as long as they want.
It’s not a matter of some hearing, which may or may not be covered. It’s the main business of parliament. The House of Commons is really the opposition’s playground. It’s the opposition who decides what’s going to happen.
It’s the opposition really which sets the rule. It’s the opposition which says this is going to be our issue. If we have something that resonates with the public, we will stick with this for a full month if need be to bring the party on power down. Trey Gowdy’s hearings were nothing like that.
Trevor Burrus: It sounds like you’re very much supporting – you are supporting a parliamentary system but they …
Frank Buckley: Well, I’m 229 years too late.
Trevor Burrus: But they have drawbacks. I mean as you said, Britain and Canada have extremely powerful crown rule governments themselves. They’re just better than the one in America in your opinion.
Frank Buckley: Yeah. I mean there’s a natural tendency towards the restoration of a Stuart monarchy if I can put it that way. There’s a natural tendency. I mean the Stuarts were moderns and it was the opposition at the time Sir Edward Coke, one of the most repulsive people in parliamentary history. It was the opposition which was in today’s term old-fashioned. Modernity favors a centralization of power in a leader.
But as that’s so dangerous, one has to ask, “Yes. Well, what system is better able to control the guy?” So daily accountability in the house, the motion of non-confidence but also the idea that you have to make a name for yourself in the house to get ahead and parliamentary systems are really good at ferreting out the thin-skinned and the grandiose and the people who have problems with power and the nasties and it’s not the case for example that many of the – without getting into names, it’s not the case that leaders who dominate in the polls or who here were presidents in the past would obviously succeed in the parliamentary system.
They would be found out and they would be ridiculed. I mean you have to deal with people who will stand 20 feet away from you and then ridicule you and take it and respond with wit and judgment and information and in Canada in two languages and not something – too many people here who could do it.
Trevor Burrus: You mentioned centralization as being the inevitability. That’s the natural process to centralize power. But does that mean that therefore we should have stayed with the Articles of Confederation or we should be living in smaller provinces where centralization isn’t so dangerous?
Frank Buckley: Well, you’re talking about the optimal size of government and there’s an argument you can make that America is just too big. There are other arguments that it is doing just fine the way it is.
It’s too big in the sense that when powers centralized here, powers really centralize as opposed to a smaller country. It’s also the case when you have a large country. This was an argument made by Rosseau. When you have a really large country, then you have to have a whole bunch of representatives, right? But you have only one president and the more the representatives, the more they are – just a mixture of voices nobody hears.
I mean we know who the president is. But the speaker of the house is from some place in Wisconsin you never heard of.
Trevor Burrus: So maybe we should avoid …
Frank Buckley: There’s another thing to be said for large government by the way, large countries. There was a really, really good book called The Race between Education and Technology by Lawrence Katz and Claudia Godin and they said the reason why America cleaned up in the 20th century was because it made all these investments in human capital and education and Europe wasn’t doing that. But the thing is other countries were doing that as well. Australia, Canada and New Zealand made equal investments in education.
But what they lacked was size. I mean what they lacked were markets and shorts. So by virtue of its size, America began to dominate and still dominates in a way that smaller countries can’t. You can call it mercantilism or you can call it imperialism and much of it was nasty but nevertheless, yeah, it does have its positive aspects.
Trevor Burrus: There’s one of the really astute observations you make in the book about one of the virtues of parliamentary systems over presidential systems is that you separate the head of state from the head of government and it reminds me of my colleague Gene Healy’s The Cult of the Presidency book in the sense of what we do to presidents and how much we lionize them. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Frank Buckley: Absolutely. In as much as I’m here to plug The Once and Future King, let me also plug Gene Healy’s book. It’s absolutely splendid. This is something like – the question is, “Do fish notice that they’re swimming in water?” No, they just live in it. Do Americans notice that they’re – it matters that the president is the head of state? No. It’s just sort of the way things are.
But if you’re in a parliamentary system, you’re accustomed to the idea that the head of state, the queen, is someone to be revered. She’s a symbol of the country. I mean you can unabashedly love her without being political in any way.
But as for prime ministers, they’re figures of fun. I mean you ridicule them. Nobody takes them seriously whereas here if you make fun of the president, it’s your – it’s like you’re being disloyal and that brings a different person to the top. I think it also explains not only how one loves but also how one might hate the president.
If he defines who you are in some respects as an American, if you’re supposed to love the guy, if a national tragedy brings a presidential healing speech and tears to the eyes of various commentators, that doesn’t happen in a parliamentary system and it’s dangerous for liberty to clothe real live power with the aura of mystique of the monarchy.
Trevor Burrus: So it’s best to take the head of state and make them somewhat impotent and then the head of government should just be a politician who we treat accordingly, which is true.
Frank Buckley: A figure of fun.
Trevor Burrus: Another thing you list for presidential harms – and we kind of talked about this a little bit but the presidents holding office for a fixed period of time can be harmful for freedom.
Frank Buckley: Well, if a prime minister mucks up, he’s toast very, very quickly. That happens fairly often as a matter of fact. With the president, you’re locked in. I mean there are positive things to be said about it. It is easier to make credible commitments if you’re a president and you’re there for a fixed period of time. I mean Nixon employed that power, when dealing with the Soviets in the 70s, he said, just remember I’m around or a while and I speculate that Bobby Lee’s incursion into Pennsylvania was dictated by the fact that he would have to face this really adamant president for another full year. He had to do something desperate to change the odds.
Trevor Burrus: But overall you think it harms the …
Frank Buckley: Well, you’re stuck with the guy and during that period, he’s essentially all-powerful and he’s not removable by impeachment.
Trevor Burrus: For the reason – yeah. And then the other one which might resonate with our listeners today that you discuss is the presidential system’s unique propensity to deadlock and how deadlock is not good for freedom.
Frank Buckley: Well, of course gridlock is a function of a separation of powers and what gridlock means is legislation doesn’t get passed. When the legislation doesn’t get passed, you get the phenomenon of a president saying, “Well, if they can’t do it, I’m here with my pen. Therefore I will do it.”
To that extent, I think presidents actually like gridlock. Gridlock empowers presidents. It means you don’t have to pay attention to what they’re doing down in Capitol Hill. You are the tribune of the people. You will defend the people. You were in charge.
I recall many republicans at various points in the last 30 years saying, “Pray for gridlock,” right? Nothing is going to happen. But the point is here you’re stuck with all these really horrible laws and you can’t get rid of them.
Maybe ObamaCare will be changed but there – think of this absolutely stupid 1965 Immigration Act or think of the tax code not changed since ’68 I guess.
Trevor Burrus: ’86.
Frank Buckley: ’86, that’s right, that’s right. You can’t change them. They’re there and they’re horrible and you’re stuck with them and whereas in a parliamentary system, if things aren’t working, you’ve elected your party and they can change things very, very quickly.
Trevor Burrus: The gridlock aspect, it seems directly related to the immigration issue that you discussed previously with President Obama. Was that a product of gridlock would you say, his action?
Frank Buckley: It is a product of gridlock to the extent that you’re stuck with a law which is absolutely stupid in many respects, which has turned out quite differently from the way people at the time said they thought it was going to turn out, which advantages one party politically, but which imposes a real cost upon the country, and produces a poisonous atmosphere I think in general which we see in the current politics of 2016.
I mean one would like to have – one would like to see America as a more generous country. But one can also understand how it’s not generous and nobody is to blame. That each side is doing what it has to do in a country of low trust like America where you can’t trust the other guy.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s the term that I’ve used – stole it from my colleague Mark Calabria but he says we live in the steal-everything-that’s-not-tied-down era of government, which is whenever you actualy have some amount of power, you do as much as you possibly can to take it and it’s going to be a bipartisan agreement and if you have the presidency – because we go back to this quote from George Mason and I want to …
Frank Buckley: Never-too-much-to-be-praised George Mason.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. I want to ask you about that. The quite is – this is interesting going back to the convention. We are not indeed constituting a British government, but a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one.
Frank Buckley: Yeah. In 1787, George the Third’s powers were beginning to wane and people in Philadelphia had realized how things have changed. The Commons was becoming more powerful than it had before. George the Third whose powers had been increasing, what has now been – had now been checked to some extent, but what they didn’t want was a Stuart kind of monarchy and Mason was one of the leaders in that respect and Jefferson said an elective monarchy is not the government for which we fought our revolution.
So if you have a constitution where congress doesn’t get things done and where only the president can get things done, then what you have is an elected monarchy. You have an all-powerful monarch who has got a four-year life span and probably eight and what you’ve got is – the only check then is those elections every four years. You may say, well, that’s all we need. But of course that’s all they had in Argentina as well. Indeed in Argentina, they had the specter of wives succeeding husbands. But then that could never happen here, could it?
Trevor Burrus: Now, I asked you this before we started recording. But would anyone would signed the constitution – now Madison didn’t get what he wanted. Hamilton wanted more of a monarchy but he might like it more. But would anyone, if they came here today, look at what we have, and say, “This is what I wanted from the constitution,” or I expected or at least I’m OK with what we have here?
Frank Buckley: Well, it’s hard to say. I mean I rather like Gouvernour Morris who I think more than anyone is the father of the constitution and Morris was so cynical about human motivations. If America – if he saw America as corrupt, he would have said, “Yes, of course, I expected this.”
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to politics.
Frank Buckley: Yeah, welcome to the life as it really is. James Wilson, an unremembered person, deserves the honor of being the person who more than anyone else supported democracy and to the extent that we are democratic, he would have liked that and to the extent that we are corrupt, he would not have liked that. They all hated corruption indeed.
When arguments were brought to bear, it’s remarkable how often the fear of corruption swayed the delegates. What corruption meant was Britain and that’s what they didn’t want. They were people who – I mean it has tried to say that they believed in republican virtue but they really did. They really thought that we would produce a country which would be more virtuous and if we could keep it as such, that would be fine.
Everybody mistakes the – there’s a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin who was leaving the convention in September 17. Some lady approaches him and says, “Well, what have you given us, Dr. Franklin?” He says, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Everyone seems to think, well, what he meant was, “Will you be virtuous?” That’s just right wing cant I think however. I think what he really meant is, “Would it be a monarchy?” because Franklin thought there’s a natural inclination in every one of us towards monarchy.
And perhaps as you look at the adulation given to Obama in 2008, why yes, Franklin would have said, “Yes, this is exactly what I feared.”
Trevor Burrus: So for living in the days of king president and – it seems that the parties will coalesce around presidents, although Trump is still I guess an open question. But what can we do?
Frank Buckley: Oh, well, that’s a tough one. I don’t think that’s fair. That’s not a fair question.
Trevor Burrus: Are you just here to doom say or can you tell us what to do …
Frank Buckley: Well, nobody wants one to write a book saying things are peachy keen.
Trevor Burrus: True. But you do have suggestions in the book.
Frank Buckley: I do have some suggestions. I don’t know how much – how well they would work. I suggested for example congressional referendum. If right now it’s the president dealing with 535 people on Capitol Hill, that’s an unequal contest because it’s one voice against a cacophony of other voices. But if you had a national referendum on something like the public debt, then congress could say, “Ah, but we have the backing of the people on this one, Mr. President. You better back down.”
Trevor Burrus: That would require a constitutional amendment.
Frank Buckley: I don’t know why it couldn’t be done by way of legislation. I mean the referendum wouldn’t be binding. But it would have a moral suasion and this is all about moral suasion. I mean the president employs a moral suasion of being the only person elected by the country as a whole and being the head of government. That’s a big time moral suasion as against the John Boehner or Paul Ryans. So it’s a matter of democratic legitimacy which is what the president has.
Trevor Burrus: Now what about congressional reform? Because you have people on the hill like Senator Mike Lee who is running the Article One Project to try and take some of this back, that the president has taken from congress. Is that something that could work?
Frank Buckley: I don’t know if it would. I see the modern presidency as almost the inevitable consequence of what’s going on. Let me explain.
Sometimes it’s suggested that there is a way back. Let me lay it out. We’ve been ruled, that’s true, by a power-hungry president who wants to rule as a monarch. But what we will do is we will elect our guy and then he will rule modestly with congress and that’s sort of act one.
Already I’m making some assumptions here, right? Act two comes when the democrats, the party of untraveled presidential power, when the democrats see how moderately the republicans have ruled when they had all three branches and the democrats will be so impressed with republican moderation, that when they get their turn, they then will rule us republicans too. Do you see a flaw in that argument?
Trevor Burrus: I see a few, yes.
Frank Buckley: Yeah. OK, well, this is called being a patsy, right?
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Frank Buckley: I’m going to be nice and then you’re going to be nice. It’s called being a patsy. So that’s the tendency in which both parties will tend I think to elect very, very powerful presidents and ultimately that’s a threat to liberty and it’s also a problem with corruption as well. But there are only – I said there were 90 presidential countries. OK. Only three of them got top marks from Freedom House on Liberty. Do you know what three they are? America is one.
Trevor Burrus: America is one. You mean top marks in the top 20 or …
Frank Buckley: No. It’s a top category of …
Trevor Burrus: America. Well, Germany has a de facto president.
Frank Buckley: No, Germany is parliamentary.
Trevor Burrus: But isn’t there someone called the president …
Frank Buckley: Yeah. But the thing about parliamentary systems is if you sadly are not monarchies, then you will have a figurehead president, which is what they do in a lot of countries.
Trevor Burrus: I don’t think I can get the other two.
Frank Buckley: Well, the other one – one is France but the thing about France is France has a semi-presidential system where congress roughly, the legislature picks a cabinet. The other one is Uruguay, which is so nice a country, you would almost think they were …
Trevor Burrus: Well, they did just legalize drugs or marijuana at least I guess. So …
Frank Buckley: I’m not on top of that – Uruguay and …
Trevor Burrus: There – as I remember, their current president is a former prisoner of the past government. So he has had an interesting job. So are we – this might be the same answer, but optimistic in terms of – I hate to have to bring up the T word, the Trump word. I mentioned him earlier and you alluded to him earlier. But since he has sucked all the air out of Washington DC, but we’re here talking about presidential power and presidential figures and who gets elected president versus the kind of people who get elected in parliaments. Politicians versus reality show stars. Are we seeing sort of the apotheosis of the American presidential mistake that happened, at least in terms of what their expectations were in the form of Donald Trump?
Frank Buckley: Well, it’s certainly an extension of every trend I’ve described. I don’t know what would happen. I will say this for Trump. He has tapped on to issues that everybody in Washington had pretty much ignored.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Frank Buckley: And full marks for that. I don’t know the fellow but I know other people who know him rather well and who say he is unbalanced. Not crazy in any way. It’s a funny time, you see. It’s a time when official Washington and all the people who think they matter in the intellectual, conservative intellectual world, when they’re ignored and that must be a psychic wound. But there’s one more thing I fancy and it’s this. It’s that like Muhammad Ali, like John Wayne, like the Beach Boys, Trump is someone who could only be an American.
I think many Americans recognize that. He could not be a Canadian. He could not be British. Muhammad Ali could not be from Africa. He could only be American and for the conservative intellectuals who absolutely detest Trump, I think there’s a certain element of a psychic wound of a – of the rage of Caliban that sees his face in the mirror. This is an American.
I think many conservative intellectuals live in an imaginary country south of Iceland and east of the New Yorker and that’s not America. It’s not my America. My America has hip-hop and monster truck rallies, things like that. To the extent that conservative elites are unhappy, yeah, I like that.
Trevor Burrus: So that makes you – this is – on the weight of the question, things are going to get worse before they get better regardless of Trump.
Frank Buckley: The guy who had the best comment about all of this is Jim Webb, who’s absolutely as nuts as anybody out there. But Webb said with Trump, it could either be really good or really bad and with Hillary, it would be more of the same. I’m not going to vote for Hillary.
Trevor Burrus: But looking past this election, it doesn’t seem there’s anything that’s going to turn the basic tide that you’ve described in The Once and Future King. We mentioned some things but right now, there’s a serious discussion of reform or national referenda. So we will continue to give more power to the president, it seems to me into the future.
Frank Buckley: Well, ask yourself this question. I mean think back to 2008 and Obama and maybe that was a one-off. But before things changed, you need a realization by the American people that there’s something rather dangerous about this accumulation of power in one person.
Alternatively, you can foresee an America in which people like rock star presidents. The question for you is, “Which America do you foresee for 8, 16 years down the road?”
Trevor Burrus: you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.