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Ten Thousand Czars

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The Founding Fathers sought to build a government that was constrained both by law and by the Bill of Rights. Modern legislators and bureaucrats have completely forgotten the reasons coercive power must be confined in narrow boundaries to avoid becoming a public curse. Instead of the rule of law, we have one new government czar and petty dictator after another.

Arbitrary power has become more fashionable as government itself has been exalted. It is symptomatic of the contemporary attitude towards government that the term “czar” now has a positive connotation.

Political and popular demands for appointments of a czar routinely stem from fundamental defects or contradictions in underlying federal laws. The first modern-era American “czar” was Energy Czar John Love, appointed by President Nixon in 1973 during the gas crisis, followed by other energy czars appointed by presidents Ford and Carter. Yet, while the appointment of an energy czar consoled some people sitting in gas lines, the fundamental cause of the energy shortages — federal price controls and other restrictions — were kept in place until Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.

When Congress enacted a law in 1982 that created a drug czar, President Reagan scorned the provision: “The creation of another layer of bureaucracy within the Executive Branch would produce friction, disrupt effective law enforcement, and could threaten the integrity of criminal investigations and prosecutions.… The so-called “drug Czar” provision was enacted hastily without thoughtful debate and without benefit of any hearings.”

The drug czar remained a largely ceremonial post until President Bush appointed William Bennett; however, the chain-smoking, tough-talking Bennett did not find the magic words to make all Americans virtuous.

President Clinton appointed a former general, Barry McCaffrey, as his second drug czar to prove that he was finally getting “tough” on drugs; the czar-general’s grandest moment was his threat to revoke the medical licenses of California and Arizona doctors who mentioned cannabis to patients after citizens of those states endorsed legalizing the medical use of marijuana. McCaffrey is also using federal law and subsidies to bribe television programs and Hollywood producers to covertly include anti-drug messages in the entertainment that Americans watch.

In recent years, Americans have also been blessed with a “health-care czar” (Ira Magaziner in 1993), an “AIDS czar” (various political appointees since 1993), and endless local “zoning czars” and “land-use czars.” But no matter how many czars are appointed, it is never enough. A government advisory panel in 1998 called for the appointment of a “food czar” to “oversee the patchwork of food safety regulations.”

And even where federal officials are not called “czars,” they have far more discretionary power than the Founding Fathers would have approved. Consider how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has twisted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to maximize its power to punish. EEOC officials have proclaimed private companies guilty of violating or impeding “equal opportunity” because of their failure to race-norm test scores (i.e., covertly increase the scores of “protected groups” to make them appear more qualified than other test-takers); failure to disregard employee theft; failure to disregard an employee’s assaults on co-workers; and failure by the Hooters restaurant chain — a “Playboy club for rednecks” — to hire men to serve beer to its customers. The EEOC capitalizes on the vagueness of the concept of equal opportunity to maximize its power to manipulate findings of guilt or innocence.

Americans of earlier generations would be as shocked by the current adulatory use of the term “czar” as contemporary Americans would be shocked by the use of “fuehrer” as a compliment for a political leader. In an 1866 Supreme Court case involving the power of military governors in the conquered Southern states, one attorney declaimed to the court concerning his suffering plaintiffs: “So far as constitutional liberty is concerned, they might as well be living under a Czar or a Sultan, upon the banks of the Bosphorus or the Neva, as in this free country.” In an 1895 case, an attorney denounced a newly enacted income tax as conferring powers on the federal government “worthy of a Czar of Russia proposing to reign with undisputed and absolute power; but it cannot be done under this Constitution.”

The more arbitrary power government employees possess, the more they are transformed into a master class. At some point, the sheer accumulation of penalties and threats in the statute book fundamentally changes the citizen’s relation to the government. Rather than a government of laws, it becomes a government of threats, intimidation, and browbeating.

If Congress and the courts want to restore the credibility of the federal government, the federal statute book and the Code of Federal Regulations must be stripped of those edicts that hang like thousands of swrods of Damocles over the heads of peaceful Americans.

The time is come to end the reign of the czars and to cease expecting salvation from arbitrary power.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.