Thankfully Dictatorial

In her article in the National Journal, Lucia Graves is thankful that Barack Obama has taken “dictatorial” action with the new regulations restriction carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and in so doing has managed to solve the greatest problem in political theory.

In college classes, climate change is taught as a textbook example of where democracy fails. And there are a whole host of reasons to think America will fail on climate change: We’ve waited too long; the consequences aren’t as tangible as in other areas of policy; we’re bad at sacrificing in the short term to achieve in the long term.

President Obama, who on Monday rolled out landmark regulations for coal-fired power plants, has found a way around that age-old political problem posed by climate change and democracies, in part by acting a little bit more like a dictator. This is something he’s been skewered for on the right, with Rush Limbaugh accusing the White House of focusing on global warming just because “it offers the president opportunities to be dictatorial.”

Limbaugh is onto something, but he has it precisely backward: The decision to use executive authority is the means, not the ends. It also makes a lot of sense when it comes to global warming given Congress’s failure to pass the Waxman-Markey energy bill in 2009, and, for decades before that, to pass any sort of comprehensive climate legislation whatsoever.

Considering that a fairly large number of Americans do not place global warming high on the list of problems they want solved, it seems that democracy in America is working just fine, on this issue. Congress has not acted because there has not been much public pressure to act. What Lucia Graves really means, of course, is that democracy has failed on this issue because the public has the wrong opinion on this issue, so the problem cannot be resolved democratically. A little but of dictatorship is in order.

If a little bit of dictatorship is necessary to deal with climate change, why not with other issues? There must be quite a few problems facing this country that are difficult to resolve democratically. Consider the federal deficit. Almost everyone agrees that the federal budget ought to be balanced, yet the government continues to run a deficit every year. Most people want the government to cut spending, except for the government spending they happen to be in favor of. So, spending increases. I wonder if Lucia Graves would approve of a president who decided that since Congress cannot act to balance the budget, he will make out the budget himself without consulting with Congress. For that matter, I wonder if she would approve if President Obama’s successor simply reversed the emissions regulations with a stroke of his pen.

Progressives have been impatient with the whole concept of checks and balances at least since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, if not before. In this view, checks and balances, rather than being a safeguard against tyranny, just get in the way of the wise and benevolent Tribunes of the People from doing good for everyone. If it so happens that the people don’t really know what is good for them, all the more reason for them to be ruled by those who know better. Unfortunately, people who wield power are seldom wise and benevolent and are usually most interested in what is good for themselves, which is why the framers of the constitution put in so many checks and balances. I wish that the people who write admiringly of President Obama’s “dictatorial” actions would think about what a president they thoroughly disapprove of could do if allowed to act as a dictator. Perhaps they would be less thankful of the example he is setting.

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