David R. Henderson  

Woodrow Wilson's Public Choice

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At a Liberty Fund conference I just finished up in Miami, in our book of readings was the following quote:

The best rulers are always those to whom great power is interested . . . . It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does. The main purpose of the Convention of 1787 seems to have been to accomplish this grievous mistake.

The quote is from Woodrow Wilson's book, Congressional Government, 1885. In his book, The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, Gene Healy leads off one of his chapters with it.

Wilson must have had an interesting public choice theory. I'm guessing he was not a big fan of Lord Acton.

In a later Wilson reading, from a lecture published in 1908, Wilson wrote:

Our President must always, henceforth, be one of the great powers of the world.

It's interesting that he thinks of the President of the United States, not the United States, as the great power.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



COMMENTS (13 to date)
david writes:

Be fair. In 1908 Austria-Hungrary was an major power that existed unified only in personal monarchic union. Likewise the German Empire was still forged out of Prussia and a horde of smaller states by rallying around the single institution of the Emperor, and Edward VII was Emperor of India alongside being King of the the United Kingdom (and Canada, and Australia, and South Africa, and...).

By the 1900s you couldn't really say that these empires were monolithic nation-state entities, yet clearly their power emerged from their joint loyalties to increasingly constitutionalized figurehead institutions.

Do recall that the United States of 1908 was busy colonizing The Philippines. The Governor General of the Phillipines was appointed by... yes, the President of the United States, without any review from Congress, as per the President's prerogative over foreign affairs, in the same way the Emperor of Germany spoke for all of Germany, and thus credibly invoked its combined military strength. All this stuff makes sense a century ago.

Ed Hanson writes:

Word check. In the Wilson quote, unles it is a different quote than usual, the word should be 'intrusted' not interested.

david writes:
One of the greatest of the President’s powers I have not yet spoken of at all: his control, which is very absolute, of the foreign relations of the nation. The initiative in foreign affairs, which the President possesses without any restriction whatever, is virtually the power to control them absolutely. The President cannot conclude a treaty with a foreign power without the consent of the Senate, but he may guide every step of diplomacy, and to guide diplomacy is to determine what treaties must be made, if the faith and prestige of the government are to be maintained. He need disclose no step of negotiation until it is complete, and when in any critical matter it is completed the government is virtually committed. Whatever its disinclination, the Senate may feel itself committed also.

I have not dwelt upon this power of the President, because it has been decisively influential in determining the character and influence of the office at only two periods in our history; at the very first, when the government was young and had so to use its incipient force as to win the respect of the nations into whose family it had thrust itself, and in our own day when the results of the Spanish War, the ownership of distant possessions, and many sharp struggles for foreign trade make it necessary that we should turn our best talents to the task of dealing firmly, wisely, and justly with political and commercial rivals. The President can never again be the mere domestic figure he has been throughout so large a part of our history. The nation has risen to the first rank in power and resources. The other nations of the world look askance upon her, half in envy, half in fear, and wonder with a deep anxiety what she will do with her vast strength. They receive the frank professions of men like Mr. John Hay, whom we wholly trusted, with a grain of salt, and doubt what we were sure of, their truthfulness and sincerity, suspecting a hidden design under every utterance he makes. Our President must always, henceforth, be one of the great powers of the world, whether he act greatly and wisely or not, and the best statesmen we can produce will be needed to fill the office of Secretary of State. ... We can never hide our President again as a mere domestic officer. We can never again see him the mere executive he was in the thirties and forties. He must stand always at the front of our affairs, and the office will be as big and as influential as the man who occupies it. ...

In the view of the makers of the Constitution, the President was to be legal executive; perhaps the leader of the nation; certainly not the leader of the party, at any rate while in office. But by the operation of forces inherent in the very nature of government he has become all three, and by inevitable consequence the most heavily burdened officer in the world.

The Spanish War would be the one where the US wrested the Philippine archipelago from Spain and ruled it until the Japanese took it, and the 'thirties and forties' are the 1830s, not the 1930s.

And he was right there - for the entire 20th century the US was intervening in world affairs. We speak of the President of the United States as the most powerful person in the world today precisely because he gets to speak for the foreign relations of the United States and all its pointy spears.

John Fembup writes:

My grandfather was a judge in Missouri around the turn of the 20th century. He was a dentist, a university professor of dentistry, and to me always seemed the perfect professional.

As a child I recall vividly that he struggled to keep his composure whenever a conversation turned to Woodrow Wilson. I noticed, but did not understand.

The first citation above seems to me similar to some remarks Obama made in 2001 when he was an Illinois State Senator: that "generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can't do to you. Says what the federal government can't do to you, but doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf. The similarity being of course that both presidents believed the Constitution is deeply flawed - with the implication that it ought to be deeply changed and that they were just the men to do it.

Reflecting on this similarity, I am thankful to President Obama for helping me better understand my grandfather's feelings about Woodrow Wilson after lo! these 100 years.

Adam writes:

I agree that Wilson couldn't have placed much weight on Lord Acton's observation. Otherwise, Wilson would have seen that the worst "rulers are always those to whom great power is entrusted."

History is littered with great power, bad rulers and the terrible consequences for the ruled and their liberty. The Founders were more than justified in trying to prevent great, centralized power. Too bad Wilson didn't see this. We suffer his statist bureaucratic legacy more and more with each passing year.

Doesn't sound like Wilson had much use for James Madison either;

The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
MG writes:

I think Wilson's actions speak for themselves, and this quote is consistent with them. Unlike @david (not the Prof) I don't even cut Wilson the slack of "context". The founding fathers had nothing but monarchical empires they could have been contextually forced to emulate -- and they rejected this path.

I am thankful to President Obama for helping me better understand my grandfather's feelings about Woodrow Wilson after lo! these 100 years.

Charles Moore in the Telegraph is here to further assist. He thinks that Obama, the Ivy League ironist, lacks what Romney has, that which

is central to the story of the English-speaking peoples. Even today, it is what makes America new in each generation. Barack Obama does not believe in it – he does not even like it. Mitt Romney does.

david writes:

The founding fathers cheerfully murdered the Whiskey Rebellion when it revolted against their own taxation, carried under then-dubious constitutional authority. So...

JeffM writes:

My grandfather was in Wilson's sub-cabinet and loathed him.

We should always remember what Clemenceau said of Wilson: "Even God needed only 10 commandments."

Costard writes:

MG: +1

david: Slavery also "made sense" in its time, and yet was not inevitable, nor was everyone agreed that it was a good idea. The argument against it was understood just as well two centuries ago as today. Excusing the past through an appeal to consensus - or even worse, an appeal to historical fact - is unfair to those who were right at the time.

Colonialism and the concentration of power were both understood as antagonistic to the colonies under Britain, and the rejection of them was an active and powerful force in politics in 19th century. Wilson was not simply embracing the European model, he was rejecting the American one -- and he knew it. The Progressives popularized everything that led to the first world war (and many of the things that led to the second), and their ideas were marginal even at the time; Wilson only took office because Taft and Teddy split the vote. In no way was he simply following the crowd.

FDR was a product of the Wilson administration, as was Hoover. Both modern parties derive from the Progressive movement. To dismiss its figurehead as some sort of antebellum figure, morally and intellectually unaccountable, is to gloss over a defining moment in political history - the struggle between classical and modern liberalism - and to deprive us of an argument that needs to be understood, if not completely reexamined.

John Cunningham writes:

Powerline on Nov. 4 had a great post, on Mencken's views of politicians. Mencken on Wilson--
[Wilson] was simply a pedagogue thrown up to 1000 diameters by a magic lantern, and he never got over the shabby opportunism of the campus. If his campaign in 1916 was honest and honorable, then honesty and honor are words quite without meaning.

david writes:

The American ideal circa 1908 was to invade and occupy the Philippines under a guise of liberation from the Spanish tyranny, and then promptly occupying it and slaughtering independence movements themselves. So Wilson was entirely a product of his era, if you will.

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