Episode 128: The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (with F. H. Buckley)
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Episode 128: The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America (with F. H. Buckley)

October 11, 2019

Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from
Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is Frank
H. Buckley, Foundation Professor at George Mason University School of Law. He is the
author of among other books The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.
Welcome to Free Thoughts, Frank. Frank Buckley: Well, thanks for having me
Trevor. Great to be here. Trevor Burrus: Now in the first chapter of
The Once and Future King, you write that, “The long arc of American constitutional
government has bent from the monarchical principle of the colonial period to congressional government,
then to the separation of power and finally back again to crown government and the rule
by a single person.” Is it accurate to say that we have crown government in the United
States? Frank Buckley: Well, we certainly have something
increasingly like that. We have a movement towards an all-powerful president and it so
resembles government back in the days of an absolute Stuart monarch that I thought crown
government was an apt description. Trevor Burrus: And this means they have the
powers of war and all the kind of things – are they the same powers that the colonial revolutionary
people objected to, that the king had? Frank Buckley: Well, people like John Adams
were absolutely outraged by for example Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts in which there
was an element of self-interest for Adams. The governors had their coterie of people.
They were able to through appointing people to special places maintain their control over
the legislature. That was all stuff that the revolutionaries hated. They saw it as corruption
and they saw it as what was wrong with Britain and they wanted something purer and cleaner
for America which is not quite what we got. Trevor Burrus: Well, interestingly, it’s
not just a book about America because you kind of are asking a question about how did
this come about what you call crown government in Britain and Canada, which are two closely
aligned or at least historically related systems. Frank Buckley: Right. Well, I was arbitraged
in the endless fascination Americans have in everything Canadian. Trevor Burrus: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean
Putin is really quite the top of the score. So you would say that a similar thing is happening
in Canada and Britain, that there’s extreme power residing in one person or one entity. Frank Buckley: Well, here’s what happened.
I mean the official story of the American constitution which is mostly a fiction headed
that what the framers really wanted was a purist system of separation of powers. But
to the extent they got that, and they had that for a long time, separation of powers
is inherently unstable. When two wrestlers walk into a ring, we expect
one only to walk out. The other is going to be dragged out. So in Britain, when started
with something like a separation of powers, but then what happened after 1832 in the great
Reform Act was the House of Commons became all-powerful. When the Canadians looked at what was going
on, they had a choice between America which they knew intimately and Britain and they
decided on the British form of government and if you read the Canadian constitution,
it’s very strange. I mean it’s written as if Canada is a complete monarchy where
the queen or the governor-general has all the power in the world. There was one moment
in the constitutional debates where somebody said, “Well, what’s that all about?”
and the fellow who would be the prime minister said, “Well, that’s just the way we do
things. It doesn’t matter.” I mean it’s going to be run by the prime minister and
the House of Commons. Trevor Burrus: That’s kind of interesting.
You think maybe one of the reasons for this is because – we threw off a king with a
war so there was a fair amount of maybe animosity. So we had to be like – we had to break away
and say we don’t have this but for Canada, it was much more peaceful. We can have this
– and she can still be in our money or at least it was Victoria at the time. So it was
a she. The monarch can be on our money and we really don’t hate them that much. Frank Buckley: Well, for the Canadians as
for the British, what they were not were theoreticians. What they were, were practical politicians
as were people in Philadelphia in 1787. They just wanted something that they were familiar
with and something which worked and they saw how the American government had apparently
broken down in the Civil War and they decided in 1867, well, that’s not quite what we
want. Trevor Burrus: Well, let’s go back to Philadelphia
actually because you kind of – you go through – if you really want to read a great account
of how the governments of these – these three countries were created or changed, that’s
definitely in this book. So if you kind of go through a good amount of what happened
in Philadelphia. So can you walk us through – this is hard at the beginning because
we have James Madison. So you start there in May of 1787 or we can go back to the Annapolis
Convention of 1786 but in May of 1787. Madison is in Philadelphia and he has got some designs
about what he wants to happen. Frank Buckley: Well, if you really want to
go back, you go back to the Alexandria Convention, designed from Alexandria … But seriously I mean I think I’m telling
a story that is quite inconsistent with the way most people think about the American constitution,
how it was created. Certainly the historians understand that. The political theorists for
the most part don’t have a clue and anybody who tells you that it’s Madison’s constitution
is advertising his ignorance. Madison came to town with the idea of a very
different constitution which would be one where the people would elect the house and
the house would choose the senate and both together would choose the president and he
got what he wanted. I mean that’s exactly what happened in Canada. So if you call him the father of the constitution,
you have to be clear which country we’re talking about because if you’re talking
about the American constitution, this is one of those cases not unknown in delivery rooms
where the father bore little resemblance to the child. Trevor Burrus: And so Madison, this idea of
– it was – filtration I think is the word he used of trying to make sure that – he
thought that each successive level would filter out better people, but it looks kind of parliamentary
as you say. Frank Buckley: Yeah, it’s parliamentary
in a sense that prime ministers are filtered out in that when you vote in Canada, you don’t
vote for a prime minister. You vote for the local member of parliament and the members
of parliament of the winning party get together and they choose the prime minister which is
precisely the filtration idea which Madison had. It’s anti-democratic. Filtration was
explicitly anti-democratic in Madison’s view because he like most of the framers really
disliked democracy. Trevor Burrus: And they created this republic
instead but you also write and not aside from the filtration just for the senate and the
house. But maybe one of the more surprising lines in your book is, “The modern presidential
system with its separation of powers was an unexpected consequence of the democratization
of American politics and not a prominent feature of the framers.” Frank Buckley: Well, they didn’t expect
that the president would be so all-powerful for a couple of reasons. One is they live
in the 18th century and therefore they couldn’t anticipate the regulatory state. They couldn’t
anticipate the modern media. They couldn’t anticipate the travel problems back then.
I mean it was harder to get around in America at that time than it was in Roman times with
Roman roads. They couldn’t expect in other words that
we would have anything like what we have today where presidents are elected with an Electoral
College and it’s people voting. Instead what they thought was nobody would ever get
a majority in the Electoral College and when that happens, the choice of who will be president
is kicked to the house voting by state. So in other words, you would get a House of
Representatives picking the president which is like what they have in Canada and it didn’t
turn out that way because of revolutions in technology and communication and in short,
the modern constitution we have is parasitic upon changes in technology. Trevor Burrus: But you go through – it’s
interesting when you go through a lot of the votes. They vote many times on how the president
can be created and then it’s kind of put off to the end of the convention when they
actually decide how this is done but they decide to ask you about popular election of
president. They ask you about choosing by the house, choosing by the senate, all the
– and many different ways. They have a cycling of votes that’s kind of interesting. Frank Buckley: Yeah. And who was the mastermind
who put it all together? I mean my vote would be for Gouvernour Morris as the real father
of the constitution. What happened was the conference – the convention starts in mid-May
and it goes on for four months and up until September 4, three and a half months in, were
quite agreed congress will appoint the president. Then what happens is a committee was set up
to finish some of the small details that are left outstanding and they come back with something
that’s utterly different from what they had before. They come back with – really
with their present system for picking the president and in all its convoluted glory
and they present it to the delegates and the delegates wonder, “What’s going on?” Gouvernour Morris who’s probably the guy
who put it together tries to explain it to them and he says it’s a compromise and people
look at him. They say, well, we see that the president will probably be appointed by congress.
That’s OK. That’s more or less what we wanted. They didn’t anticipate things. Trevor Burrus: And then some of them did – some
of them seem to think that the electors, the members of the Electoral College would vote
their independent judgment about whether – so it wasn’t … Frank Buckley: Yeah, that was filtration as
well and that aspect of the constitution was praised by both Madison and Hamilton in the
federalist papers. One other difference introduced at the last moment has to do with impeachment.
Now you want to get rid of a prime minister. It’s just a simple vote in the house majority. You want to get rid of a president and it’s
basically impossible. Why is it impossible? It’s impossible because you need two-thirds
of the senate to convict, right? After September 4, it was just the majority and the change
is so fundamental but nobody picked up on it for the next – for the last two weeks
of the convention. There was just too much going on. They wanted to go home. But that
arguably is as important as anything else in the structure of the constitution. Put it this way. Sadly Andrew Johnson wasn’t
impeached. I mean I should like to see presidents impeached more often. Yeah. I mean for high
crimes and misdemeanors and for low crimes and just for the spirit of the thing. But the vote to remove Bill Clinton was 50-50.
Now, we’ve been living under that old constitution. That would have been enough to remove Bill
Clinton if the deciding vote had been cast in favor of the removable by the then vice
president Al Gore. Wouldn’t that have been fun to watch? Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and that would be kind
of like a no-confidence vote. Frank Buckley: It would be much easier to
get rid of a losing president. I mean we might have kissed good-bye to George Bush in 2007,
to Obama in 2011. Trevor Burrus: Do you think that Washington’s
presence there – a lot of historians would say that George Washington’s presence in
the convention – and everyone understands that he was going to be president, made them
A, not think about the article to the presidential powers as much as they thought about other
parts of it and B, not put enough protection in there for people who weren’t George Washington,
and know the character of George Washington. Frank Buckley: Everybody thought so at the
time. Washington was an absolutely commanding figure, really the indispensable American,
a person entirely absent from the constitutional histories of Britain and Canada. Nobody then
was as powerful as Washington and even today, people ask, “What would Washington do?”
Nobody asks, “What would Billy Pitt do?” Trevor Burrus: Billy Pitt. Oh, William Pitt
from … Frank Buckley: Pitt the Younger. Remember
there was a quarrel in The Simpsons as to whether the Duke of Wellington or Pitt the
Younger was the best prime minister and Homer slices it out. Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s a good segue
to go to Britain. Now the British system, maybe we kind of alluded to earlier but I
wanted to get a little bit more into. It seems that a lot of significant parliamentary changes
or at least with the prime minister in the relation to the king occurred during the American
Revolution and right after. Then further changes occurred in 1830s and we’ve talked a little
bit about how the system evolved in Britain. Frank Buckley: Well, it was a slow evolution
and it really began with Pitt the Younger, resting control of the finances away from
George the Third, who conveniently went mad during this period. But by 1832, things have
changed out. It became clear that the House of Lords didn’t really count for much and
the king didn’t really count for much. The last time the monarch exercised his or her
veto was Queen Anne in 1711. So that’s pretty much gone. Trevor Burrus: And that’s still true today. Frank Buckley: Well, yes, although I will
tell you something. The Queen is ultimately the last defense against usurpation by a dictator.
If some reason parliament decided to go out of business or give all power to a dictator,
you still required the consent of the queen or the monarch for that to happen. Here that role would be played by the Supreme
Court, but ultimately the queen has that residual power. It’s not all ceremony. There’s
still something left of her political power in that respect, but only in a case so extreme,
one could scarcely imagine it. Trevor Burrus: So we had William Pitt and
then in the 1830s, there was a huge problem with representation in pocket districts and
boroughs. Old Sarum had a representative but I don’t think anyone lived there. I’ve
been to Old Sarum. No one lives there. I can guarantee. It has been quite a while. Frank Buckley: Old Sarum is a hill near Salisbury.
But the constituencies in Britain at that point had been set up in the 16th century
and one of them had been washed to sea for example. So nobody lived there and two people
lived in Sarum. But they still got to pick their member of parliament. Of course the
choice of who would get into parliament at that point depended upon local aristocrats
or the king. It was anything but democratic. But nevertheless, Britain was a society where
people could rise. It was – Britain never practiced democracy as a theory but always
practiced it as an art. It is in part the British inheritance and
years of colonial self-rule in Britain that helps to explain I think why the American
Revolution was successful. Trevor Burrus: And now we’re at – after
the 1830s reforms, we have no house – I mean the House of Lords is pretty much ceremony. Frank Buckley: Yeah. Trevor Burrus: And we have a more powerful
– you think than originally intended prime minister and House of Commons. Frank Buckley: Well, nothing was … Trevor Burrus: Of course. Frank Buckley: Things just grew like topsy.
But there was a remarkable switch and as I say and in Britain and parliamentary countries,
the House of Commons becomes all-powerful and the tendency in presidential countries
is for the president to become all-powerful. One of the things I did in the books and some
at George Mason and do number crunching was to compare how both of them fare on measures
of liberty. I took a popular generally accepted measure of how countries are free and what
I discovered was being presidential is really bad if you like liberty. Trevor Burrus: This is for … Frank Buckley: Well, there are about 90 presidential
countries and about 60 democratic parliamentary countries and then there are a bunch of really
horrible countries that I didn’t get into. But roughly, it’s – two billion people
live with a presidential system and two billion people live with what I call the Anglo-Canadian
model which has begun in England and first exported to Canada and then throughout the
world. The Anglo-Canadian model is vastly superior as I say in terms of protecting liberty. Trevor Burrus: Now, let’s talk about some
of the reasons why. You list many of them with the characteristics of the president.
So we have the separation of powers in America which is an issue for aggrandizing power in
the president. So we have presidential legislative power. That’s America. Can we talk a little
bit about what that is? Frank Buckley: Well, I think the first thing
you want to do is take a look at what some of the anti-presidentialists have to say here
in the United States. They worry about things like regulatory reform or whatever and the
point is there is a tendency towards concentration of power in a political leader under any system,
whether it’s Britain, Canada or in the United States. The regulatory state tends to produce a very,
very powerful political leader, prime minister or president, so does the modern media. The
question then is, “Which system is better able to constrain an overreaching political
leader?” And things like the – the fact that you
have to meet the House of Commons and possibility of a vote of no confidence, constrain prime
ministers and that’s absent here. So Obama can say for example if they don’t want to
pass it, “I’ve got a pen.” Trevor Burrus: But both sides – the Canadian,
the British and the American system all have this regulatory state to some degree. Frank Buckley: Yeah. Trevor Burrus: Is it worse in America, do
you think? Frank Buckley: Only in one respect and that
is because America is richer than any place else. I mean I expect that they have for example
an Estonian EPA but if somebody has a problem about wetlands and Estonia, I sort of see
them picking up the phone and telephoning the Estonian EPA and there are three people
in the room. One of them has a manual typewriter and they don’t have anything to – they
can’t do anything whereas here, you have a – hundreds of thousands of EPA lawyers
with the absolute desire to put you in jail. Trevor Burrus: This is definitely true. Another
part of the presidential power you discussed is the non-enforceability powers. Another
one of these crown government things that they’re – they can now not enforce laws
passed by Congress and there’s little that Congress can do about it seemingly. Frank Buckley: Yeah. One of the most fascinating
things that’s happening right now is a case called Texas v. U.S. which is the attempt
by the State of Texas and other states to get – to force the president to adhere to
the U.S. – not Texan but U.S. Constitution and what Obama has done is Obama has – really
through not an executive order but a memorandum through his homeland security secretary, he
has created basically what really looks like legislation offering something like amnesty,
work permits for about four to five million people. It so much looked like just pure legislation
that I found it really quite shocking and I expected in fact that the Supreme Court
would do something about it. Now with the death of Scalia, one doesn’t
expect that to happen, in which case one would revert to the 5th Circuit decision which struck
it down. But you know what? Shortly after the first trial judgment in the case, Obama
said, “That’s OK. I’m not going to deport the men away.” So the difference is there are no work permits
but nobody is going to be deported. So the thing is, how do you force a president to
enforce the laws? I mean you can’t issue a mandamus order saying, “Obama do this.”
I mean it has been done. It has been done for example when courts have ordered mayors
to desegragate and things like that. But at the level of the grand constitutional theory,
it’s hard to see the Supreme Court even had Red Scalia there to do that. Trevor Burrus: Now compare that to a parliamentary
system. Frank Buckley: In a parliamentary system,
firstly there would be no need because what you would be talking about is control of parliament
by a prime minister who – the leader of a party in majority typically. So they pass
legislation. Trevor Burrus: So he would be able to … Frank Buckley: He would be able to do what
he wants but if he mucks it up in some way, I mean he still has to meet the house and
run for election. There’s a form of daily accountability which really doesn’t exist
here. I mean a good example would be the Benghazi hearings, which were very important here in
Washington and probably not too many other places. But in parliament for example, the
opposition has the ability to keep the prime minister’s feet to the fire as long as they
want. It’s not a matter of some hearing, which
may or may not be covered. It’s the main business of parliament. The House of Commons
is really the opposition’s playground. It’s the opposition who decides what’s going
to happen. It’s the opposition really which sets the
rule. It’s the opposition which says this is going to be our issue. If we have something
that resonates with the public, we will stick with this for a full month if need be to bring
the party on power down. Trey Gowdy’s hearings were nothing like that. Trevor Burrus: It sounds like you’re very
much supporting – you are supporting a parliamentary system but they … Frank Buckley: Well, I’m 229 years too late. Trevor Burrus: But they have drawbacks. I
mean as you said, Britain and Canada have extremely powerful crown rule governments
themselves. They’re just better than the one in America in your opinion. Frank Buckley: Yeah. I mean there’s a natural
tendency towards the restoration of a Stuart monarchy if I can put it that way. There’s
a natural tendency. I mean the Stuarts were moderns and it was the opposition at the time
Sir Edward Coke, one of the most repulsive people in parliamentary history. It was the
opposition which was in today’s term old-fashioned. Modernity favors a centralization of power
in a leader. But as that’s so dangerous, one has to ask,
“Yes. Well, what system is better able to control the guy?” So daily accountability
in the house, the motion of non-confidence but also the idea that you have to make a
name for yourself in the house to get ahead and parliamentary systems are really good
at ferreting out the thin-skinned and the grandiose and the people who have problems
with power and the nasties and it’s not the case for example that many of the – without
getting into names, it’s not the case that leaders who dominate in the polls or who here
were presidents in the past would obviously succeed in the parliamentary system. They would be found out and they would be
ridiculed. I mean you have to deal with people who will stand 20 feet away from you and then
ridicule you and take it and respond with wit and judgment and information and in Canada
in two languages and not something – too many people here who could do it. Trevor Burrus: You mentioned centralization
as being the inevitability. That’s the natural process to centralize power. But does that
mean that therefore we should have stayed with the Articles of Confederation or we should
be living in smaller provinces where centralization isn’t so dangerous? Frank Buckley: Well, you’re talking about
the optimal size of government and there’s an argument you can make that America is just
too big. There are other arguments that it is doing just fine the way it is. It’s too big in the sense that when powers
centralized here, powers really centralize as opposed to a smaller country. It’s also
the case when you have a large country. This was an argument made by Rosseau. When you
have a really large country, then you have to have a whole bunch of representatives,
right? But you have only one president and the more the representatives, the more they
are – just a mixture of voices nobody hears. I mean we know who the president is. But the
speaker of the house is from some place in Wisconsin you never heard of. Trevor Burrus: So maybe we should avoid … Frank Buckley: There’s another thing to
be said for large government by the way, large countries. There was a really, really good
book called The Race between Education and Technology by Lawrence Katz and Claudia Godin
and they said the reason why America cleaned up in the 20th century was because it made
all these investments in human capital and education and Europe wasn’t doing that.
But the thing is other countries were doing that as well. Australia, Canada and New Zealand
made equal investments in education. But what they lacked was size. I mean what
they lacked were markets and shorts. So by virtue of its size, America began to dominate
and still dominates in a way that smaller countries can’t. You can call it mercantilism
or you can call it imperialism and much of it was nasty but nevertheless, yeah, it does
have its positive aspects. Trevor Burrus: There’s one of the really
astute observations you make in the book about one of the virtues of parliamentary systems
over presidential systems is that you separate the head of state from the head of government
and it reminds me of my colleague Gene Healy’s The Cult of the Presidency book in the sense
of what we do to presidents and how much we lionize them. Could you talk about that a
little bit? Frank Buckley: Absolutely. In as much as I’m
here to plug The Once and Future King, let me also plug Gene Healy’s book. It’s absolutely
splendid. This is something like – the question is, “Do fish notice that they’re swimming
in water?” No, they just live in it. Do Americans notice that they’re – it matters
that the president is the head of state? No. It’s just sort of the way things are. But if you’re in a parliamentary system,
you’re accustomed to the idea that the head of state, the queen, is someone to be revered.
She’s a symbol of the country. I mean you can unabashedly love her without being political
in any way. But as for prime ministers, they’re figures
of fun. I mean you ridicule them. Nobody takes them seriously whereas here if you make fun
of the president, it’s your – it’s like you’re being disloyal and that brings a
different person to the top. I think it also explains not only how one loves but also how
one might hate the president. If he defines who you are in some respects
as an American, if you’re supposed to love the guy, if a national tragedy brings a presidential
healing speech and tears to the eyes of various commentators, that doesn’t happen in a parliamentary
system and it’s dangerous for liberty to clothe real live power with the aura of mystique
of the monarchy. Trevor Burrus: So it’s best to take the
head of state and make them somewhat impotent and then the head of government should just
be a politician who we treat accordingly, which is true. Frank Buckley: A figure of fun. Trevor Burrus: Another thing you list for
presidential harms – and we kind of talked about this a little bit but the presidents
holding office for a fixed period of time can be harmful for freedom. Frank Buckley: Well, if a prime minister mucks
up, he’s toast very, very quickly. That happens fairly often as a matter of fact.
With the president, you’re locked in. I mean there are positive things to be said
about it. It is easier to make credible commitments if you’re a president and you’re there
for a fixed period of time. I mean Nixon employed that power, when dealing with the Soviets
in the 70s, he said, just remember I’m around or a while and I speculate that Bobby Lee’s
incursion into Pennsylvania was dictated by the fact that he would have to face this really
adamant president for another full year. He had to do something desperate to change the
odds. Trevor Burrus: But overall you think it harms
the … Frank Buckley: Well, you’re stuck with the
guy and during that period, he’s essentially all-powerful and he’s not removable by impeachment. Trevor Burrus: For the reason – yeah. And
then the other one which might resonate with our listeners today that you discuss is the
presidential system’s unique propensity to deadlock and how deadlock is not good for
freedom. Frank Buckley: Well, of course gridlock is
a function of a separation of powers and what gridlock means is legislation doesn’t get
passed. When the legislation doesn’t get passed, you get the phenomenon of a president
saying, “Well, if they can’t do it, I’m here with my pen. Therefore I will do it.” To that extent, I think presidents actually
like gridlock. Gridlock empowers presidents. It means you don’t have to pay attention
to what they’re doing down in Capitol Hill. You are the tribune of the people. You will
defend the people. You were in charge. I recall many republicans at various points
in the last 30 years saying, “Pray for gridlock,” right? Nothing is going to happen. But the
point is here you’re stuck with all these really horrible laws and you can’t get rid
of them. Maybe ObamaCare will be changed but there
– think of this absolutely stupid 1965 Immigration Act or think of the tax code not changed since
’68 I guess. Trevor Burrus: ’86. Frank Buckley: ’86, that’s right, that’s
right. You can’t change them. They’re there and they’re horrible and you’re
stuck with them and whereas in a parliamentary system, if things aren’t working, you’ve
elected your party and they can change things very, very quickly. Trevor Burrus: The gridlock aspect, it seems
directly related to the immigration issue that you discussed previously with President
Obama. Was that a product of gridlock would you say, his action? Frank Buckley: It is a product of gridlock
to the extent that you’re stuck with a law which is absolutely stupid in many respects,
which has turned out quite differently from the way people at the time said they thought
it was going to turn out, which advantages one party politically, but which imposes a
real cost upon the country, and produces a poisonous atmosphere I think in general which
we see in the current politics of 2016. I mean one would like to have – one would
like to see America as a more generous country. But one can also understand how it’s not
generous and nobody is to blame. That each side is doing what it has to do in a country
of low trust like America where you can’t trust the other guy. Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s the term that
I’ve used – stole it from my colleague Mark Calabria but he says we live in the steal-everything-that’s-not-tied-down
era of government, which is whenever you actualy have some amount of power, you do as much
as you possibly can to take it and it’s going to be a bipartisan agreement and if
you have the presidency – because we go back to this quote from George Mason and I
want to … Frank Buckley: Never-too-much-to-be-praised
George Mason. Trevor Burrus: Exactly. I want to ask you
about that. The quite is – this is interesting going back to the convention. We are not indeed
constituting a British government, but a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one. Frank Buckley: Yeah. In 1787, George the Third’s
powers were beginning to wane and people in Philadelphia had realized how things have
changed. The Commons was becoming more powerful than it had before. George the Third whose
powers had been increasing, what has now been – had now been checked to some extent, but
what they didn’t want was a Stuart kind of monarchy and Mason was one of the leaders
in that respect and Jefferson said an elective monarchy is not the government for which we
fought our revolution. So if you have a constitution where congress
doesn’t get things done and where only the president can get things done, then what you
have is an elected monarchy. You have an all-powerful monarch who has got a four-year life span
and probably eight and what you’ve got is – the only check then is those elections
every four years. You may say, well, that’s all we need. But of course that’s all they
had in Argentina as well. Indeed in Argentina, they had the specter of wives succeeding husbands.
But then that could never happen here, could it? Trevor Burrus: Now, I asked you this before
we started recording. But would anyone would signed the constitution – now Madison didn’t
get what he wanted. Hamilton wanted more of a monarchy but he might like it more. But
would anyone, if they came here today, look at what we have, and say, “This is what
I wanted from the constitution,” or I expected or at least I’m OK with what we have here? Frank Buckley: Well, it’s hard to say. I
mean I rather like Gouvernour Morris who I think more than anyone is the father of the
constitution and Morris was so cynical about human motivations. If America – if he saw
America as corrupt, he would have said, “Yes, of course, I expected this.” Trevor Burrus: Welcome to politics. Frank Buckley: Yeah, welcome to the life as
it really is. James Wilson, an unremembered person, deserves the honor of being the person
who more than anyone else supported democracy and to the extent that we are democratic,
he would have liked that and to the extent that we are corrupt, he would not have liked
that. They all hated corruption indeed. When arguments were brought to bear, it’s
remarkable how often the fear of corruption swayed the delegates. What corruption meant
was Britain and that’s what they didn’t want. They were people who – I mean it has
tried to say that they believed in republican virtue but they really did. They really thought
that we would produce a country which would be more virtuous and if we could keep it as
such, that would be fine. Everybody mistakes the – there’s a famous
quote by Benjamin Franklin who was leaving the convention in September 17. Some lady
approaches him and says, “Well, what have you given us, Dr. Franklin?” He says, “A
republic, if you can keep it.” Everyone seems to think, well, what he meant
was, “Will you be virtuous?” That’s just right wing cant I think however. I think
what he really meant is, “Would it be a monarchy?” because Franklin thought there’s
a natural inclination in every one of us towards monarchy. And perhaps as you look at the adulation given
to Obama in 2008, why yes, Franklin would have said, “Yes, this is exactly what I
feared.” Trevor Burrus: So for living in the days of
king president and – it seems that the parties will coalesce around presidents, although
Trump is still I guess an open question. But what can we do? Frank Buckley: Oh, well, that’s a tough
one. I don’t think that’s fair. That’s not a fair question. Trevor Burrus: Are you just here to doom say
or can you tell us what to do … Frank Buckley: Well, nobody wants one to write
a book saying things are peachy keen. Trevor Burrus: True. But you do have suggestions
in the book. Frank Buckley: I do have some suggestions.
I don’t know how much – how well they would work. I suggested for example congressional
referendum. If right now it’s the president dealing with 535 people on Capitol Hill, that’s
an unequal contest because it’s one voice against a cacophony of other voices. But if
you had a national referendum on something like the public debt, then congress could
say, “Ah, but we have the backing of the people on this one, Mr. President. You better
back down.” Trevor Burrus: That would require a constitutional
amendment. Frank Buckley: I don’t know why it couldn’t
be done by way of legislation. I mean the referendum wouldn’t be binding. But it would
have a moral suasion and this is all about moral suasion. I mean the president employs
a moral suasion of being the only person elected by the country as a whole and being the head
of government. That’s a big time moral suasion as against the John Boehner or Paul Ryans.
So it’s a matter of democratic legitimacy which is what the president has. Trevor Burrus: Now what about congressional
reform? Because you have people on the hill like Senator Mike Lee who is running the Article
One Project to try and take some of this back, that the president has taken from congress.
Is that something that could work? Frank Buckley: I don’t know if it would.
I see the modern presidency as almost the inevitable consequence of what’s going on.
Let me explain. Sometimes it’s suggested that there is a
way back. Let me lay it out. We’ve been ruled, that’s true, by a power-hungry president
who wants to rule as a monarch. But what we will do is we will elect our guy and then
he will rule modestly with congress and that’s sort of act one. Already I’m making some assumptions here,
right? Act two comes when the democrats, the party of untraveled presidential power, when
the democrats see how moderately the republicans have ruled when they had all three branches
and the democrats will be so impressed with republican moderation, that when they get
their turn, they then will rule us republicans too. Do you see a flaw in that argument? Trevor Burrus: I see a few, yes. Frank Buckley: Yeah. OK, well, this is called
being a patsy, right? Trevor Burrus: Yes. Frank Buckley: I’m going to be nice and
then you’re going to be nice. It’s called being a patsy. So that’s the tendency in
which both parties will tend I think to elect very, very powerful presidents and ultimately
that’s a threat to liberty and it’s also a problem with corruption as well. But there
are only – I said there were 90 presidential countries. OK. Only three of them got top
marks from Freedom House on Liberty. Do you know what three they are? America is one. Trevor Burrus: America is one. You mean top
marks in the top 20 or … Frank Buckley: No. It’s a top category of
… Trevor Burrus: America. Well, Germany has
a de facto president. Frank Buckley: No, Germany is parliamentary. Trevor Burrus: But isn’t there someone called
the president … Frank Buckley: Yeah. But the thing about parliamentary
systems is if you sadly are not monarchies, then you will have a figurehead president,
which is what they do in a lot of countries. Trevor Burrus: I don’t think I can get the
other two. Frank Buckley: Well, the other one – one
is France but the thing about France is France has a semi-presidential system where congress
roughly, the legislature picks a cabinet. The other one is Uruguay, which is so nice
a country, you would almost think they were … Trevor Burrus: Well, they did just legalize
drugs or marijuana at least I guess. So … Frank Buckley: I’m not on top of that – Uruguay
and … Trevor Burrus: There – as I remember, their
current president is a former prisoner of the past government. So he has had an interesting
job. So are we – this might be the same answer, but optimistic in terms of – I hate
to have to bring up the T word, the Trump word. I mentioned him earlier and you alluded
to him earlier. But since he has sucked all the air out of Washington DC, but we’re
here talking about presidential power and presidential figures and who gets elected
president versus the kind of people who get elected in parliaments. Politicians versus
reality show stars. Are we seeing sort of the apotheosis of the American presidential
mistake that happened, at least in terms of what their expectations were in the form of
Donald Trump? Frank Buckley: Well, it’s certainly an extension
of every trend I’ve described. I don’t know what would happen. I will say this for
Trump. He has tapped on to issues that everybody in Washington had pretty much ignored. Trevor Burrus: Yes. Frank Buckley: And full marks for that. I
don’t know the fellow but I know other people who know him rather well and who say he is
unbalanced. Not crazy in any way. It’s a funny time, you see. It’s a time when official
Washington and all the people who think they matter in the intellectual, conservative intellectual
world, when they’re ignored and that must be a psychic wound. But there’s one more
thing I fancy and it’s this. It’s that like Muhammad Ali, like John Wayne, like the
Beach Boys, Trump is someone who could only be an American. I think many Americans recognize that. He
could not be a Canadian. He could not be British. Muhammad Ali could not be from Africa. He
could only be American and for the conservative intellectuals who absolutely detest Trump,
I think there’s a certain element of a psychic wound of a – of the rage of Caliban that
sees his face in the mirror. This is an American. I think many conservative intellectuals live
in an imaginary country south of Iceland and east of the New Yorker and that’s not America.
It’s not my America. My America has hip-hop and monster truck rallies, things like that.
To the extent that conservative elites are unhappy, yeah, I like that. Trevor Burrus: So that makes you – this
is – on the weight of the question, things are going to get worse before they get better
regardless of Trump. Frank Buckley: The guy who had the best comment
about all of this is Jim Webb, who’s absolutely as nuts as anybody out there. But Webb said
with Trump, it could either be really good or really bad and with Hillary, it would be
more of the same. I’m not going to vote for Hillary. Trevor Burrus: But looking past this election,
it doesn’t seem there’s anything that’s going to turn the basic tide that you’ve
described in The Once and Future King. We mentioned some things but right now, there’s
a serious discussion of reform or national referenda. So we will continue to give more
power to the president, it seems to me into the future. Frank Buckley: Well, ask yourself this question.
I mean think back to 2008 and Obama and maybe that was a one-off. But before things changed,
you need a realization by the American people that there’s something rather dangerous
about this accumulation of power in one person. Alternatively, you can foresee an America
in which people like rock star presidents. The question for you is, “Which America
do you foresee for 8, 16 years down the road?” Trevor Burrus: you for listening. Free Thoughts
is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.

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