by Audrey Pietrucha
“Who’s the mage whose major itinerary is making all Oz merrier? Who’s the sage who’s sagely sailed in to save our posteriors?” – from Wicked
When I saw the musical Wicked, a reimagining of the story of the Wizard of Oz, Barack Obama was about a year into his presidency and the parallels between American and Ozian-style hero worship stunned me. Since then our attitude toward the president, and what he can and cannot do, has modified somewhat, but only slightly. As this presidential campaign season has shown, Americans still want a savior president. The only thing we differ about is whether an R or D comes after his name on the ballot.
It seems to be human nature to look outside ourselves for rescue when danger or difficulties appear. Perhaps this is a vestige of childhood and calling upon our parents to make everything from scraped knees to bruised feelings better. But when society relegates itself to the position of child and makes government its parent and protector it sacrifices precious liberty as well as opportunities to grow and mature as a people. Examples of this loss, unfortunately, abound over the last two centuries and have increased and intensified over the past decade as our last two presidents have expanded the powers of the office and rendered congress almost superfluous.
Not that our representatives have fought their dismissal very hard. Content to rule over their own little fiefdoms, our representatives and senators have settled for prestige over power because with power comes responsibility and accountability, neither of which is all that appealing. It is easier to niggle from the sidelines while enjoying the perks of lesser office than make unpopular decisions and risk losing a cushy job.
Over decades chief executives have discovered a couple of reliable paths to expanded executive power, the most obvious and effortless being some sort of national emergency. James Madison once said “It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad” and it is true that a state of war has been a most effective route to increased presidential power. Madison looks especially prescient in light of the changes in American life as a result of the 9-11 attacks. The broad and multi-focused “war on terror” we find ourselves fighting has been the perfect way for presidents who would be kings to justify the steady encroachment of government on American’s freedoms. From humiliating sojourns through airport security lines to warrantless wiretaps to a national defense act which allows American citizens to be executed by drone without the benefit of a trial, national security has become the chief executive’s way of saying “I can do anything I want.”
Regulation is the other preferred route of presidential usurpation. Our current president has shown himself especially skilled at exploiting the post-New Deal administrative state and taking the legislature’s lawmaking power unto himself and the executive branch. From sodium in our diets and credit card fees to what services are considered “essential health benefits,” the Obama administration has had its hands in just about every conceivable area of American life.
Concentration of the power to make and execute laws has encouraged Americans to look unquestioningly to the president to do anything and everything. Especially problematic is our tendency to support regulations we like despite the fact that they have been implemented in unconstitutional fashion by unelected bureaucrats. In our shortsightedness we forget that presidential power is seldom rolled back and the next person to hold office might have priorities that directly conflict with our own. We also overlook the overtly political nature of such a system, through which those in control may grant exemptions or privileges to political and financial allies. When we the people support the regulatory state we give up even more of what little influence we have over our government.
In both the book and the musical the Wizard of Oz is eventually exposed as a fraud. Dorothy and Elphaba, the victim of the wizard’s unchecked power in Wicked, discover their salvation lies within themselves and not with some wonderful wizard. As we take our ballots this Election Day it would be truly wonderful if we would internalize this lesson and choose our leaders based not on what they can do for us but on what their proposed policies allow us to do for ourselves.
Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.