1. Ilya Somin points out that the Obama Administration now has “more czars than the Romanovs.” Fair enough snark, if the underlying factual claim is correct and if the label “czar” was applied by the White House rather than the press.
2. Eugene Volokh points out that, given the actual performance of the Romanovs, the practice of giving someone extensive powers over some issue and then calling him a “czar” reflects a lack of historical grip. I’d go beyond that: it reflects a deeply and dangerously false idea about how institutions should work, based on an equally deeply and dangerously false theory of human cognition: the optimistic epistemology which holds that the right couse of action is obvious to anyone of goodwill, or alternatively to the properly chosen expert. This is simply the “benevolent despot” fallacy writ small. Since the world is complicated and our cognitive powers limited, right action is, in general, more likely to result from argument than from dictation. (Nevertheless, where the bureaucratic tangle is sufficiently dense, it may well be prudent for a President to delegate to a staffer over-riding authority, as Harry Truman did with Averill Harriman and the Marshall Plan.
3. The linguistic impropriety is especially absurd when a metaphorical czar is put in charge of a metaphorical war, e.g., the War on Drugs.
4. But Somin’s claim that assigning White House staffers such cross-cutting authority risks giving inappropriate people great power by “circumventing the normal appointment and confirmation process” doesn’t really pass the giggle test. The White House Chief of Staff isn’t a Senate-confirmed position, and wields far more power than any nominal “czar.” Van Jones’s “czardom” consisted of a brief from the President to cajole other executive branch officials about “green jobs.” Hardly a threat to the Constitutional order. (Karl R0ve’s practice of planting political commisars reporting to the White House – under the title “special assistant” – on the staffs of subcabinet officials was far more dangerous.)
5. The comments to Somin’s post reflect the danger that sane people run when they think that they can safely fellow- travel with insane people. The objectively insane belief that Barack Obama is a Marxist is offered in (apparently) perfect seriousness. Jones’s (former) self-identification as a “communist” made him too hot to handle politically. But Glenn Beck’s next target is Cass Sunstein, with his views on animal rights and the Second Amendment as the pretext. Having tasted blood, the wolfpack is coming back for more. Sunstein, as a commenter points out, has been a guest poster on the Volokh Conspiracy. But that won’t protect him from the full Jones/Sotomayor treatment, though his white skin might. From a libertarian perspective, Sunstein is a far more attractive choice for OIRA than anyone likely to replace him. But will the Volokh Conspirators rise to defend their former colleague when their current allies turn on him?
That famous poem by Pastor Niemoller on the risk of not speaking out starts “First they came for the Communists.” Any serious libertarian or conservative who tries to use the Beck/O’Reilly/Limbaugh/Palin faction rather than denouncing it is playing with fire. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.