Should presidents make policy?
By Scott Sumner
In America’s Constitution, the Congress is given the power to declare war and to set tariff rates. Over time, that power has gradually shifted to the executive branch. For instance, today we saw this tweet:
I think it’s fair to say that America’s Founders did not envision the President having the power to destroy Turkey’s economy. (Or Iran’s.) On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean the current system is undesirable.
Here I’d like to side step two controversial issues. Is the use of executive power in recent decades unconstitutional? And are President Trump’s specific policy decisions unwise?
Instead, I’d like to focus on a different question. Even if recent presidents have behaved lawfully, using powers delegated by Congress, and even if President Trump’s foreign policy decisions are as wise as he claims, is this a good system? I will argue that it is not.
The Founder’s set up a system where policy would be made by Congress, which is comprised of 535 individuals. This can be seen as being based on the “wisdom of crowds”, the idea that decisions made by large groups of people will be wiser, on average, than those made by individuals.
Here the term “on average” is very important. It’s easy to find cases where a particular autocrat made better policy decisions than a large Congress. Contrast Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew with India’s Congress. But a more systematic look at the data would show that most of the greatest policy disasters in human history were done by individuals, often with at least quiet opposition from top government policymakers. Hitler’s decision to launch WWII and Mao’s decision to launch the Great Leap Forward are just two of the many examples that I could cite.
So while large groups of people can make mistakes, the Founders believed that serious mistakes would be more common if a single autocrat made decisions with no checks and balances.
It’s possible that America will not always be led by a statesman of “great and unmatched wisdom”. When that day arrives, there is a danger that a reckless leader could make a serious policy mistake.
The Cato Institute has long warned about the unbridled use of executive power. Recent events have strengthened their argument, regardless of what you think of President Trump’s policies. To understand why, you need to recall that the foreign policy establishment in both parties has been highly skeptical of the Cato position, viewing it as naive, as not sufficiently aware of how a dangerous world requires a powerful executive branch.
Importantly, that DC conventional wisdom is also highly contemptuous of President Trump’s decision-making style, which they view as reckless, emotional, and not based on well-established principles.
Thus there are two possibilities. One is that the establishment is wrong about Trump. That’s certainly possible, but it’s also an indictment of almost all the arguments that have ever been marshaled in favor of the “Washington Consensus” in foreign policy. If Trump is right then the “emperor has no clothes”, that is, serious foreign policy experts of the conventional school don’t know what they are talking about. After all, Trump almost completely rejects conventional methods of doing foreign policy.
Another possibility is that Trump is just as wild and reckless and impetuous as his critics in the foreign policy establishment claim. But that view greatly strengthens the Cato argument for returning policymaking powers to Congress. If Trump is as reckless as some claim, then the president should not have the power to unilaterally destroy countries such as Turkey, just because that country made him angry.
I strongly recommend a new Cato paper by Christopher A. Preble, John Glaser, and A. Trevor Thrall:
America’s outsized role in the international system is in part justified on the grounds that U.S. leadership is morally superior to the alternatives and that America is guided by higher principles. One need not confine oneself to the Trump years to appreciate the weakness of this claim.
But Donald Trump does clarify the danger. His ascendance to the highest office in the nation is perhaps the most compelling illustration of the hazards of vesting the presidency with so much unbridled power, both domestically and internationally. The presidency, and the global military presence it commands, must be cut down to size and properly checked by its co-equal branch. With or without Trump, any world order that depends for its survival on the whims of a single person in a single branch of government in a single country is simply untenable.
Again, this isn’t about President Trump’s policies. If you are a fan of Trump’s policies, just imagine a future president with Trump’s personality and shoot from the hip style, but that had a set of policy preferences 180 degrees removed from your policy preferences. Would you want that president to have wide discretion to set policy, or should Congress set policy and have the president faithfully execute the laws that Congress enacts? I’ll go with the “wisdom of crowds” as the lesser of evils, at least in the long run. The Framers were smarter than many of the DC elite believe.
PS. Yes, I was being sarcastic in one of the sentences above. No points for guessing which one.
PPS. Do not take this post as in any way being supportive of Turkey’s war on the Kurds. I’m not a fan of the Turkish government.