Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which, as any American high school student can tell you, was an act that apparently had something to do with stamps.”     Dave Barry

January 27, 2009

Bush Was a Dictator – And the U.S. Government Is a Dictatorship

by tarran

A dictator is a monarch who is both law-maker and law enforcer, who also acts as final judicial arbiter in cases, and is not legally liable for his actions.

By such a standard, George Bush was a dictator.  He claimed the power to ignore the legislature, and to arbitrarily rewrite the law – citing the U.S. Constitution’s appointment of the president as the “Commander in Chief” of the United States Army and U.S. Navy as justification.  If the Congress passed a law he didn’t like, he refused to enforce it.  If it failed to pass a law he liked, he enacted it anyway. He successfully suppressed the courts’ power of habeas corpus throughout most of his term, effectively wielding the power to seize anyone off the street and to detain them arbitrarily with no review.  And, despite his many violations of the law, he never faced any credible threat of legal sanction.

Many of his supporters argue that since George Bush stepped down willingly at the end of his term, he was no dictator.  But a what characterizes a dictatorial government is how the leader controls the government, not how he got into power or left it.  A Roman appointed to the office of Dictator during the years of the Republic had his term expire after only a year, yet during that year no-one would argue that during that year there was no dictatorship, even though they often stepped down willingly at the end of their term. Nor do they have to come to power through violent means: witness Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Fuhrer by the German Parliament via the Enabling Act, which was all nice and legal and regularly renewed by parliament.

While many people have been outraged by Bush’s arrogation of power, there was been no serious attempt by the judiciary and the legislature to rein him in.  The judiciary did, very late in the game, start to protest against his more outlandish legal theories justifying his unilateral actions, but for the most part they deferred to the president.  In Congress, a few gadflies started impeachment proceedings, but they never amounted to anything.  To the contrary, throughout his presidency the other branches bent over backward to defer to this claim of authority.

Since he has taken office, President Obama has been busy issuing new directives limiting the power that he and his subordinates claim.  Many see this as an end to the unitary executive.  But, this personal arrogation of power is very similar to the homeowner allowing a friend to crash on the couch.  It can be rescinded at any time.  In the absence of any movement in the legislature or the judiciary, it merely amounts to the dictator announcing his intention to stay his hand, rather than a permanent abdication of power.

Furthermore, he has continued legislating by fiat, the latest of which is his executive order designed to force improvements in fuel efficiency.  Regardless of  whether one feels that this is a good or bad idea,  one must admit that the power to enact such a major change in government policy, which will likely impose billions of dollars in compliance costs, when on the shoulders of one man, is dictatorial.

In many ways, the U.S. has become the most dangerous kind of dictatorship – a democratic one.  While dictators are often quite violent and, well, dictatorial, they sometimes  do to take a long view, since they expect to experience the long-term consequences of any misrule.  On occasion, dictators can even be pretty decent,  recognizing that a hands-off approach will increase their power far more quickly that a hands-on approach.  I can think of no better example of this phenomenon in action than that of Singapore.

In the U.S., on the other hand, the rulers can only expect to stay in office for less than a decade.  Rather than worrying about long term consequences, they are far more likely to be concerned about how to maximize their use of the office in the short period they hold it. Rather than worrying about the long term health of the nation, under a democratic (the system of government, not the political party) dictatorship of limited duration, we expect to see decisions that are focused on a smaller time scale.

When the Roman Republic collapsed and was replaced by the imperial system, the old forms of the republic were maintained.  The senate appointed consuls and voted on legislation.  However, for the next few centuries, political power resided in the hands of the Emperor, who was named Dictator by the Senate.  While early emperors like Augustus had fairly sound economic policies, the history of the empire is a sad tale of failed economic policies creating new crises, of poorly though out intervention begetting stronger interventions, each multiplying the devastation of the unintended consequences of its predecessor.

The republican system of government is not completely extinguished in the United States,  It is, however, all but dead.  Absent a dramatic sea-change in the attitude the American people towards their government, we will increasingly be at the mercy of popularly elected dictators, who are not restrained by any significant limitation on their powers.

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10 Comments

  1. A dictator is a monarch who is both law-maker and law enforcer, who also acts as final judicial arbiter in cases, and is not legally liable for his actions.

    Can you defend this definition? The definitions I looked at consistently used the term “absolute rule”. The modern presidency certainly has a far wider scope than envisioned by the Founders, but it’s still a long way “absolute”. Witness the smackdown Bush got vis-a-vis social security.

    Perhaps you should rework the article a bit, because I think your central point is absolutely correct.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — January 27, 2009 @ 9:51 am
  2. But jeff,

    Isn’t that in the end what absolute rule is? The functions of a state are lawmaking, law-enforcement, and dispute arbitration.

    Nor are dictators immune to resistance. Saddam Hussein, for example was a dictator, yet he owed his position to his ability to negotiate with tribal elders in order to mute opposition.

    Comment by tarran — January 27, 2009 @ 10:26 am
  3. I hope, for the sake of intellectual integrity, that these little bits of analysis aren’t going to end with Bush, but continue into the current administration which may turn out to be far more of a dictatorship than the last 8 years.

    Comment by Robb Bond — January 27, 2009 @ 12:22 pm
  4. I agree with tarran. The exact definition of dictator may be debatable, though I think the case for describing the recent presidents this way is supportable.

    And to answer Robb’s question for myself, I’d say this evaluation extends to Mr. Obama’s term(s) as well. The trend towards effective monocracy is not limited to Mr. Bush. He’s just a recent two-term example. Dictatorships that are perceived as enlightened and/or benevolent are nonetheless subject to the same risks and flaws as dictatorships which are generally perceived as harmful: the federal government moves the nation on the whim of one person. It’s the “rule of man” versus the “rule of law” thing.

    And though I see the term abused much more often than I see it used well, I’ve have to say this trend in our government is precisely what I’d call “Un-American”.

    Comment by Akston — January 27, 2009 @ 2:04 pm
  5. Why is this website publishing silly nonsense like this? I know that many who write here aren’t overendowed with mental abilities but let’s draw the line somewhere – and NOT between moron and brainless. A little higher, if you please. This is embarrassing. I’m not sure this site is worth paying any attention to. Writing counter blogs against logic this crappy is a
    total waste of time.

    Comment by kerry bradshaw — January 27, 2009 @ 4:56 pm
  6. @ Kerry,
    Why bother? Why do you (and other haters) feel the need to let the writers know that you think what they post is nonsense? Why waste your precious time at all? Does it make you feel better or something? Just wondering.

    Comment by Aimee — January 27, 2009 @ 5:20 pm
  7. I find it amusing and ironic that arguments disparaging the logic in the original post are of the caliber:

    “silly nonsense”
    “moron”
    “brainless”

    The contrast between a meaningless post and a logical assertion that is researched and linked is indeed evident. Though which posts qualify as meaningless seem to differ based on the observer.

    Comment by Akston — January 27, 2009 @ 6:20 pm
  8. The Republican Party seems to be grasping for new ideas in order to enhance their future political success.

    One idea might be for them to return to the concept for which they were named: republicanism.

    Comment by Stephen Gordon — January 27, 2009 @ 6:45 pm
  9. Isn’t that in the end what absolute rule is? The functions of a state are lawmaking, law-enforcement, and dispute arbitration.

    Nor are dictators immune to resistance. Saddam Hussein, for example was a dictator, yet he owed his position to his ability to negotiate with tribal elders in order to mute opposition.

    An absolute ruler can get his way whenever he chooses to. He won’t always exercise that, but when he decides something, he doesn’t need anyone’s approval; in fact, he’ll rarely even tolerate anybody openly questioning his judgement.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — January 27, 2009 @ 7:37 pm
  10. Kerry –

    There is a document that outlines the scope and powers of the federal government. It is called the Constitution. By continually granting itself powers outside its charter, the federal government has indeed made itself dictatorial. It decides what powers it has and how it will apply them to the citizenry, the law be damned.

    Witness, just since the turn of the millenium, the PATRIOT act, Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, Gitmo, warrantless wiretaps, SarbOx, Kelo v. New London, TARP I, and the soon to be Obama stimulus plan. None of these actions have a clear basis in the document that provides for the federal government’s powers. Despite taking these actions using the organs of constitutional government, this is what dictatorships do.

    Would you care to attempt to defend the above list of actions as being Constitutional by pointing each one back to a specific clause in that document, or will you simply admit that the logic in the post and in this comment are simply above your pay grade?

    Also, if you’re quite sure this site isn’t worth paying attention to, why exactly do you waste your time here?

    Comment by Quincy — January 28, 2009 @ 12:40 am

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