The Presidency, Incentives, and Offices

The modern separation of powers did not exist in the Aristotlean schema of government: instead of conceiving of specific institutions that form the government which are certain concepts instantiate – i.e. popular rule (Congress), Constitutional form (judiciary), effective execution (Presidency), Aristotle thought that all citizens should share in working through the everyday problems of law and policy, justice, and getting things done. So the whole citizen body at different times participates in trials, or in the assembly, and the “executive” doesn’t exist – the whole point of “offices” is that there are lots of these things, and the whole government instead of being an entity nearly wholly independent of the people exists instead as a part of the community’s larger conception/participation in the political.

It occurred to me that there is a way to fix the Presidency if we take the concept of “offices” seriously. The Federalist Papers at 70-72 make the case that the President is motivated purely by honor – he is a supremely ambitious individiual – and that he needs to be allowed to continually win reelection so that way he can start long-term projects and complete them. Honor both motivates him and is a check on him: if he gets to be a problem, simply stop electing him.

The Amendment passed after FDR making the 2 term limit formal utterly wrecks this incentive, and severely the ability of the executive to do anything long-term: remember that nearly everyone else who is part of the bureaucracy will be serving longer than he is, esp. the heads of administrative agencies who should be under his control. Since that Amendment isn’t going to go anytime soon, especially in this age where political debate consists of calling each other “fascists,” we need to come up with a whole new approach to the Presidency.

Here’s my idea: someone should do something analogous to what people in Athens did with the “offices.” There, the supreme office, I forget what it was, rotated its holder daily. (Socrates was holder one day and pissed off enough people that he was put to death.)

In our country, that wouldn’t happen, because if someone served a short term purposely, we would recognize that good or bad, a lot of what was given them would be based on chance, and we would be more forgiving of their faults.

So I think this. Someone needs to serve as President for a time, do a pretty good job, and then resign it as soon as things start feeling like they’re getting out of control. And that precedent should continue. The second something bad starts happening, leave the job, don’t even wait for the criticism. In Bush’s case, the time to have resigned would have been after the invasion of Iraq. Just go out on a high, and let the VP or someone else take over. No amount of criticism for “chickening out” could ever match the nastiness now.

The key to this is that the President will be less a lightning rod for criticism, and since he would be willing to resign, people would be more inclined to trust him, and maybe even put pressure on him to get him to stay. Furthermore, since Presidents would be able to appoint their successor by filling in the VP slot, the Presidency is removed from popular control, which is really what has destroyed it – note that the way the Electoral College was set up, there was not to be one popular vote for the executive.

The mechanisms that force a bond between the President and the people nowadays emphasize the campaign more than the actual Presidency – no one remembers what President Bush says in office, as much as his speeches during the convention. The Presidency is an inherently unserious institution. Let’s let it be serious again, by filling it with occupants who are more interested in serving and going back to private life as quickly as possible, as opposed to these overly ambitious individuals who would be great if the older system of incentives were in place, but who are threatened by an even more expectant and ambitious democracy that has changed the nature of government.

1 Comment

  1. I am glad that your mind is a bit clearer. Hope all is well. I do agree that the presidency was supposed to function in the long term and not just two terms. It is a pity that they feared authoritarianism/monarchy so much that they passed that infernal amendment. Perhaps President Bush would have waited a bit to start a war in the Middle-East. Oh Well!

    I do not know if I agree with the offices dialogue though. I need to read up on that before I can make any judgment.

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