Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Moron Prevention

All of us, if we are of reflective habit, like and admire men whose fundamental beliefs differ radically from our own. But when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or count himself lost….

…all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

—H.L. Mencken, “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” The Evening Sun, Baltimore (26 July 1920) [1]

The coronavirus pandemic should not have taken us by surprise. In fact,

“Public health and national security experts shake their heads when President Donald Trump says the coronavirus ‘came out of nowhere’ and ‘blindsided the world.’

“They’ve been warning about the next pandemic for years and criticized the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to dismantle a National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic would hit the nation.” [1]

How did we come to select such a shortsighted individual as President of the United States? Was H.L. Mencken correct in his blistering indictment of democracy’s tendency to choose incompetent leadership? I think so, but not for the reason that Mencken would have it. His idea was that stupid arises from stupid, but we need not acquiesce to that curmudgeonly assessment.

Let’s take a look at the job description of the President of the United States. Article II of the Constitution begins by saying that the “executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” (Article II, Section 1, Clause 1) [2] That’s more than a perfunctory statement. The executive power that the Framers of the Constitution were familiar with was the king of Great Britain. Thus, when President Washington issued a neutrality proclamation upon the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain, Alexander Hamilton defended the action, arguing that “Article II vests significant powers in the President as possessor of executive powers not enumerated in subsequent sections of Article II,” [3], writing,

“’The second article of the Constitution of the United States, section first, establishes this general proposition, that “the Executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” The same article, in a succeeding section, proceeds to delineate particular cases of executive power. It declares, among other things, that the president shall be commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; that he shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, to make treaties; that it shall be his duty to receive ambassadors and other public ministers, and to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. It would not consist with the rules of sound construction, to consider this enumeration of particular authorities as derogating from the more comprehensive grant in the general clause, further than as it may be coupled with express restrictions or limitations; as in regard to the co-operation of the senate in the appointment of officers, and the making of treaties; which are plainly qualifications of the general executive powers of appointing officers and making treaties.’

“’The difficulty of a complete enumeration of all the cases of executive authority, would naturally dictate the use of general terms, and would render it improbable that a specification of certain particulars was designed as a substitute for those terms, when antecedently used. The different mode of expression employed in the constitution, in regard to the two powers, the legislative and the executive, serves to confirm this inference. In the article which gives the legislative powers of the government, the expressions are, “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” In that which grants the executive power, the expressions are, “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” The enumeration ought therefore to be considered, as intended merely to specify the principal articles implied in the definition of executive power; leaving the rest to flow from the general grant of that power, interpreted in conformity with other parts of the Constitution, and with the principles of free government. The general doctrine of our Constitution then is, that the executive power of the nation is vested in the President; subject only to the exceptions and qualifications, which are expressed in the instrument.’” [4]

The king of Great Britain had the power to declare war, and no consent of Parliament was necessary. In our Constitution, that executive power was given to Congress. But the power to declare neutrality was not. Hamilton’s argument, then, was that the President had the power to declare neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain.

Such plenary power is an awesome responsibility for one individual. It is only common sense that it should not be given to an imbecile.

Article II goes on to specifically enumerate other powers of the Executive.

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” (Article II, Section 2, Clause 1) [5]

Since the President is to be, in essence, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military, it would be useful if he or she had some experience in military affairs, or at the very least be educable in such matters. An acquaintance with military strategy would be helpful in order to prevent us from getting into military quagmires, and prevent stupid deployments.

There are currently 15 executive departments covering a wide range of areas, from foreign affairs to education. It is impossible for the President to be knowledgeable about all of them. But he or she should have an agile enough mind to understand what his or her cabinet officers are saying when they provide advice. Not only that, but the President should have the basic humility to know when others have expertise that he or she does not possess. The President should be able and willing to learn. Further, he or she should have the good sense to appoint people who are actually experts in the areas their department covers, rather than political allies, and should know how to find them.

Moreover, since the President has the power to pardon, he or she should have something of a judicial temperament. The President should have the kind of insight and morality necessary for exercising that power impartially and fairly.

“He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.” (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2) [6]

Making treaties requires knowledge of foreign affairs; and that knowledge should transcend popular favor or enmity toward particular nations. Appointing Supreme Court Justices requires sufficient knowledge of the law to know whether a candidate possesses the requisite qualifications, as opposed to being, say, ready and willing to execute the will of a political party.

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.” (Article II, Section 3) [7]

The State of the Union address has become a circus act. But the original intent was that the President would periodically provide Congress with information necessary to perform its legislative task, and make suggestions as to what actions it should take. Doing that, of course, requires the ability to keep track of enormous amounts of information and analyze it. It also requires knowledge of what the law is, so that he or she doesn’t propose to Congress something that it has already done.

Knowledge of the law is important also in the President’s task of executing the law. How can he or she execute the law without knowing what it is? This capability, of course, can only exist in a general sense, since the law is too voluminous for the entirety of it to be known in detail. But the most important law, the Constitution, should be known and understood by every president, who should understand the limits of his or her own power, along with the power of every other part of government. He or she should have the knowledge necessary to not encroach upon the rights of citizens.

Now with all of these qualifications it is apparent that the President should be a fairly remarkable individual. How are we to discover such a person? By having politicians argue like idiots with each other on television?

More, how are we to select such a person if we don’t understand the kind of knowledge and capabilities that the President should have? How can we judge of his or her capabilities in the area of foreign policy, if we don’t understand foreign policy ourselves? How can we assess a candidate’s ability to be commander in chief of the armed forces, if we know nothing of military strategy? What can we understand about executing the laws, if we don’t even know the Constitution?

First of all, let it be said that there is no shame in not being capable of making a choice. Most of us have jobs, and those of us who don’t have other things to do besides making the kind of searching inquiry necessary for choosing the right person as President of the United States. And the chances aren’t very good that we’ll find such people among the carnival barkers who are our politicians. The problem with politicians is that, as a group, they tend to tell fibs; and it is far preferable to have a president who isn’t so ethically challenged. Truthfully, it looks like picking the President needs to be a full-time job.

It just so happens that the Framers of the Constitution agreed. The Electoral College wasn’t originally conceived as a kind of point system for winning the popular vote in a given state. Instead, the idea was that the people of each state would choose electors, rather than candidates as we do today, who were themselves to be entrusted with making the choice. Alexander Hamilton explained why this method was chosen:

“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

“It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of several, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.” (Federalist, No. 68) [8]

Hamilton explained that while the “sense of the people” should be employed in making the choice, making a proper selection is a complicated endeavor, and should be engaged in by qualified people devoted to the task. Additionally, the “tumult and disorder” that accompanies popular elections should be avoided.

On that last point, one need only to consider that presidential elections have come to be preeminently disinformation campaigns. Partisans appear to have come to the conclusion that their best chances for electoral success are with the use of falsehood and deception applied to those who don’t have the luxury of time to make a proper inquiry. Presidential elections have thus become quadrennial frauds upon the public.

Now it is obvious that the Electoral College doesn’t operate at all as the Framers intended. People in every state now vote for one who is “to be the final object of the public wishes,” which means that they select a group of functionaries of the candidate’s political party. The result is that the President is chosen by those who aren’t properly informed, and have, indeed, been subjected to disinformation.

Much better would be an actual election of electors, as Hamilton and the other Framers envisioned. It would be best if they were elected individually, in a nonpartisan election to avoid the electors having party obligations. Since we would want them to devote full time to a serious inquiry, they would be chosen well in advance of the presidential election, and would be compensated for their service.

There is evidence enough that there is something wrong with the way we elect presidents. Perhaps we should try the system given to us by the Framers of the Constitution.