Czardom, wingnuttia, and getting up with fleas

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.

Comments

  1. says

    "Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas."

    I wish this were all there were to it. I fear, however, that a much better analogy is Hindenburg. The implication is that this nuttiness, along with its accompanying hatred and intolerance, is simply an inconvenient political distraction. Perhaps so. Or, perhaps, next time we get the Cheney equivalent as the President, not the VP; along with a much more aggressive confidence in how far (s)he can go in terms of lying, breaking the law, playing the press, basically destroying current America.

    http://www.alternet.org/politics/141819/is_the_u….

  2. larry birnbaum says

    "Since the world is complicated and our cognitive powers limited, right action is, in general, more likely to result from argument than from dictation."

    This is what Cheney, in particular, never understood. It's at the root of the most critical blunders of the previous administration.

  3. Dan Staley says

    One wonders whether this Administration can overcome the ululating and shrill craaaazy accusations sure to come thicker and faster from Wingnuttia. Gonna be a good show of the crazy.

  4. Thomas says

    Maybe Mark should have read the comments to his last post about Van Jones before posting this one. It would have been good if Obama would have denounced truthers last year, or earlier, instead of employing them in his administration. But he didn't, and truthers are found everywhere on the left. Over at TNR, we're supposed to be reassured about Jones, because his trutherism doesn't mark him as an outlier. That's the movement you're a part of Mark. Good luck with the fleas.

  5. says

    I agree that the comment threads at VC bring out some very serious crazies; the amount of birther crap is astounding.

  6. says

    *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.*

    I think anyone who quotes Pastor Niemoller in reference to any contemporary American conservative – with the possible exception of Pat Buchanan – is the real wingnut.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Mark Kleiman: 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 believe 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? [...]

  2. [...] Mark A.R. Kleiman responds to my most recent post on “czars” with a substantive point, and with claims that I am somehow “fellow-travelling” with ridiculous “wingnuts.” The substantive point is that “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.” [...]