Does the President “Run" the Country?

By | November 28, 2016 | 0 Comments

Except for small children and those unable to control their impulses, we think before we act. But we think in words. So the words we use affect the way we act.

It is common verbal shorthand to say, “The president runs the country.” If this is taken to mean that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed services and speaks for us with other nations, well and good. But all too easily, the words may be taken literally. That’s not good.

In fact, the president does not “run” the country. He does not even “run” the federal government. He directs the executive branch of the federal government.

Clearly, President Trump will not “run” the Senate, where Republicans will hold a razor-thin majority. Nor does he “run” the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which – so far at least – is led by Speaker Ryan, at best a lukewarm friend of Trump.

And without question, no president “runs” our independent judiciary, which can overrule acts of Congress signed by the president, and can also throw out regulations issued by the executive departments. No one controls judges – they often lack even self-control.

Even within the executive department, which the president heads, most personnel below the top levels are under civil service and can be fired only for cause. They follow the orders of the president and his appointees with varying degrees of precision, and sometimes with a good deal of inertia.
That is, one can’t say that the president “runs” even the executive branch of the federal government without qualifying the statement.

Nevertheless, it is possible to run a country. Louis XIV ran France, insofar as the technology of that era allowed. Recall his remark, “I am the state.” More modern technology allowed Hitler to run the Third Reich, Stalin to run the Soviet Union, Mao to run China, and Pol Pot to run Cambodia. They did so with tragic results and mountains of corpses, but they indeed ran their countries.

And today, it is impossible to dispute the fact that the ayatollahs run Iran, the Saudi royal family runs Saudi Arabia, Kim runs North Korea, and various African dictators run their nations. But perhaps you are getting the idea that “running the country” may have distressing implications.
This phrase implies that it is desirable, or at least feasible, for one person to control almost everything that goes on in a populous and complex nation. If this were so, France would still be ruled by an absolute monarch, and the Third Reich and the Soviet Union would still be going concerns. They aren’t.

On the contrary, the remaining nations that are run by one man or a small group are mainly poor and unstable. True, Saudi Arabia isn’t poor, because huge oil profits buoy up its economy. But it is unstable, as those who run it know all too well.

China is doing somewhat better, though its economy may be in trouble, and the persecution of Christians continues unabated. But China has its own problems, not the least of which is a great excess of young men over young women – a result of decades of selective abortion and infanticide of females. But this problem has an obvious solution – an aggressive war.

That, of course, is what history shows tyrants do when they run into problems at home. They blame the problems on “them” and instigate a war. Hitler was a classic example. This is another reason, if one were needed, that freedom is preferable to tyranny. Tyrants often start aggressive wars. Free nations rarely do.

But here’s the really annoying thing. Some of the same people who think the president “runs” the country are also the first to complain when any of their freedoms or privileges are curtailed to the slightest extent, even after the horrific events of 9/11.

It’s as if they were overgrown, spoiled teenagers. They want their own car, but expect Dad to pay for the insurance, and then resent his criticism of their driving. They let Dad be responsible for their safety, and then resent him for making rules. But we aren’t teenagers living at home; we are adults living on our own. And the president isn’t our Dad.

So if someone asks whether the president is “running the country” well, be sure to inquire what the questioner means. Does he really believe that one person could conceivably control 324 million individuals, with their unimaginably complex and unpredictable interrelations?

Have you ever tried to run a family reunion while keeping Uncle Edgar from fighting with Cousin Bob? Imagine a reunion for a family with 324 million members.

And if someone asks whether the president is “handling the economy” well, don’t forget to inquire how anyone, or any group, could possibly manage a multi-trillion-dollar economy, with its nearly infinite number of interactions.

Have you ever tried to run a small business without going broke or crazy? Imagine running the largest economy in the world.

How, precisely, could all this be done, even assuming that some megalomaniac tried to do it? How could anyone harmonize the conflicting goals of diverse special interest groups?

Of course we need laws to prevent fraud. But what mechanisms could actually control our unimaginably complex economy?

Hitler needed a vast apparatus of terror to control authoritarian Germans, and he still ended up committing suicide after leaving his nation in ruins. The Soviets needed a similar apparatus to control their people, and their regime imploded after 74 years. How could anyone hope to control individualistic Americans without such a terror apparatus? This is a delusion, and an absurd one at that.

“Running the country” and “handling the economy” are useful shorthand expressions, but dangerous ones. They lead to a mindset that makes us more likely to give all credit, and place all blame, on one man, while evading our own responsibility.
Responsibility – that’s the key word.

Why bother to inform ourselves about national issues, read a newspaper, listen to talk radio, or even vote? Why take responsibility for the defense of our families against criminals? After all, the president is “running the country” for us, isn’t he?

And why bother to be sure the stocks we buy represent real value and aren’t grossly overpriced? Why take care to provide for our children’s education and our retirement? After all, the president is “handling the economy” for us too, isn’t he?

And even worse, media pundits often refer to the president as “our commander-in-chief.” The Constitution names the president as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The Framers insisted that the armed forces be under civilian control. But they never imagined, even in nightmares, that their descendants would think so little of the Constitution – and value so little the freedom it guarantees – that they would carelessly refer to the president as commander-in-chief of the nation. That would pull us back to the days of Louis XIV if we were lucky, and the days of Hitler and Stalin if we were not.

Worst of all, a free nation depends on a free press. But the mainstream media have degenerated into the propaganda arm of the Democratic Party. We were treated to media denunciations of a too-powerful, “imperial” presidency while Reagan or Bush occupied the White House, and we hear similar warnings now, even before Trump has taken office.

But what about the eight years of Obama? What about his executive orders flouting the will of Congress regarding immigration and health care? All that seemed to escape the notice of the mainstream media. Media that protest the actions of their political opponents, but remain silent when their guy violates his oath of office, can be called a “free press” only in jest or sarcasm.

It is revealing that for eight years, “progressives” were perfectly happy in their belief that their guy was “running the country.” But now they are frightened by the thought that the other guy will be “running the country.” Their own fantasy of the government as Big Daddy is the source of their anxiety.

If we wish to remain citizens instead of subjects, we should avoid using language that implies it is reasonable, or even possible, for one person to “run” a vast and complex nation of 324 million citizens. We run the country, at least for now. The armed forces have a commander-in-chief, but we do not – and God willing, we never will.

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