Obama Administration Now has More Czars than the Romanov Dynasty:

Over some 300 years, Russia was ruled by a total of 18 czars of the Romanov dynasty. However, as David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy points out, the Obama administration has now appointed more czars than that in just three months:

It has finally happened. With yesterday's naming of Border Czar Alan Bersin, the Obama administration has by any reasonable reckoning passed the Romanov Dynasty in the production of czars. The Romanovs ruled Russia from 1613 with the ascension of Michael I through the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917. During that time, they produced 18 czars. While it is harder to exactly count the number of Obama administration czars, with yesterday's appointment it seems fair to say it is now certainly in excess of 18.

In addition to Bersin, we have energy czar Carol Browner, urban czar Adolfo Carrion, Jr., infotech czar Vivek Kundra, faith-based czar Joshua DuBois, health reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, new TARP czar Herb Allison, stimulus accountability czar Earl Devaney, non-proliferation czar Gary Samore, terrorism czar John Brennan, regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, and Guantanamo closure czar Daniel Fried. We also have a host of special envoys that fall into the czar category including AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross, Sudan special envoy J. Scott Gration and climate special envoy Todd Stern. That's 18.

This is a very conservative estimate, however. I will allow you to pick whom you would like out of the remaining candidates. For example you could count de facto car czar Steve Rattner even though the administration went out of its way to say they weren't going to have a car czar... before he ultimately emerged as the car czar . . .

But you certainly might want to count people deemed by the media to be the "cyber security czar" or the "AIDs czar" or the "green jobs czar" even if there are reasons to quibble about the designation of one or two of them.

Government by czar didn't work especially well in Russia. Hopefully, it won't be quite so bad in this country. And, yes, of course I understand that Obama's czars unlike the Romanovs are ultimately accountable to democratically elected officials. I also don't expect Obama's czars to be organizing pogroms or exiling dissidents to Siberia anytime soon. On the other hand, democratic accountability for America's czars is increasingly tenuous in light of the fact that there are too many of them for most voters to even keep straight, much less understand and evaluate their performance in any depth. Here, as elsewhere, the rapidly growing size and complexity of government makes difficult for voters to monitor those who are supposed to be serving the public . Maybe Obama's army of czars will do a good job anyway. A few of the Romanovs did. But for every "Czar-Liberator," like Alexander II (who free Russia's millions of serfs), there were a lot more oppressors and incompetents.

For what it's worth, I also recognize that it was the Republican Reagan administration that appointed the first American "czar" when they named a "drug czar" in 1982. Reagan was wrong to do so. That, however, in no way justifies the Obama Administration's massive expansion of this dubious practice.

UPDATE: Some commenters seem to be missing the point of the post; it's possible I wasn't sufficiently clear. So let me reiterate: No, I am not saying that Obama's czars are brutal oppressors like most of the Romanov czars were. I thought that was clear in the original post, where I said that "I also don't expect Obama's czars to be organizing pogroms or exiling dissidents to Siberia anytime soon." But let me be even more precise about it here to eliminate any remaining confusion. Nor am I saying that Cass Sunstein is somehow closely analogous to Nicholas II. I am, however, saying that the proliferation of czars makes an already excessively large and complex government even more difficult for rationally ignorant voters to monitor. And I doubt that there is any gain in efficiency to offset this harmful effect.



Others have pointed out that having offices called "czars" is an odd naming choice for a democracy. But czars weren't just authoritarians. They were ultimately authoritarians who left their country far poorer than their more democratic counterparts, lost a world war, and of course paved the way for an even worse system of government. The label "czar" thus doesn't historically connect to a model of strongman effectiveness -- it connects to a model of strongman failure.

(Of course, I recognize that czars in the federal government don't have even a fraction of the truly dictatorial power of their namesakes. But the label was used for a reason, presumably to evoke the positive connotation of strong authority that Gets The Job Done. Yet the specific strong authority that the label evokes proved to be unable to get the job done, at least under anything approaching modern conditions -- under any sensible definition of "job," possibly with the significant but narrow exception of the job of defeating Napoleon -- and unable in a way that culminated with a disaster of historic proportions.)


A Czar Bites the Dust:

The Obama Administration has appointed more czars than Romanov dynasty ever had. Now, however, one of those czars has been forced to resign. "Green jobs" czar Van Jones has resigned as a result of the controversy that arose after the discovery that he signed a 9/11 "Truther" petition back in 2004. Jones' dubious excuse that he had not read the petition carefully before signing and that it didn't reflect his real views failed to mollify the critics, especially given other inflammatory statements he has made.

Jones' ridiculous beliefs probably aren't typical of those of the administration's many other czars. However, the fact that a person like him could be appointed to an important czar position does highlight one of the weaknesses of the czar system: by circumventing the normal appointment and confirmation process, it makes it more likely that a poorly qualified person or one with ridiculous policy views will be put in charge of important issues. Unfortunately, not all such dubious czars can be as easily exposed as Jones was. And that is just one of several flaws of the czar system.

As I noted in previous posts, Obama is not the first president to use "czars." Several Republican presidents also employed them. However, that does not justify the present administration's massive expansion of this dubious practice. We can only hope that the Jones incident will convince the president to cut back on it.


Mark A.R. Kleiman on Czars and "Fellow-Travelling" with "Wingnuts":

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."

I think that this greatly understates the power of the various czars. Their authority includes power over the massive auto industry bailout (the "car czar"), the War on Drugs (the "drug czar"), and a czar who oversees the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among others. It's true that Van Jones' position was relatively minor. But the czars as a group have authority over many important issues. As for the White House Chief of Staff, I think there is less need for Senate confirmation of an official whose main job is, after all, to oversee the president's own staff. He has very little independent authority over policy. However, in an administration where the chief of staff's position does extend to policy in a more significant way, it is indeed possible that the chief of staff selection should be subject to greater scrutiny than it currently gets. Whether or not that is so, I think my original point stands. The czar system does circumvent the regular appointment and confirmation process [update: with a few exceptions, including the drug czar], and that fact does pose dangers.

Kleiman's second claim is that I (and perhaps other VC bloggers), have been dangerously associating ourselves with "wingnuts":

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.

To the extent that Kleiman's accusation is based on silly things that some people said in comments to our posts, I think it hardly needs to be said that I don't endorse, agree with, or "fellow-travel" with everything said by commenters. After all, there are many comments to my posts that attack me or my views in all sorts of ways. If I deleted all comments I disagreed with, there wouldn't be many comments left, and the whole point of having comments would be undermined. I have previously written that Obama is not a socialist. The fact that some commenter to one of my posts says otherwise does not mean that I have changed my mind or endorse the sentiment in any way.

Kleiman is also wrong to suggest that we haven't defended Cass Sunstein's nomination to head OIRA. Indeed, my co-bloggers have written an entire series of posts defending Sunstein's nomination. I myself agree that Sunstein is well-qualified for the job and is better from a libertarian perspective than most others whom the administration could have appointed.

Finally, Kleiman implies that it is wrong for us to ever ally on any issue with various conservatives who hold ridiculous views on other matters. In my judgment, the issue is more complicated than that. If Kleiman's overwrought analogy between these conservatives and the Nazis referenced by Niemoller was accurate, it would indeed be dangerous and wrong to ally with them on anything. But I think it's pretty obvious that Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, despite their excesses, are a far cry from Hitler and Goebbels. Opposing Sunstein's nomination - even for silly reasons - is not the same thing as wanting to send people to concentration camps. As co-blogger Jonathan Adler points out, various left-wing groups have also attacked Sunstein's nomination, often for reasons that aren't much better than Beck's. Does that mean that "serious" liberals must forego all cooperation with these groups?

Beck, Limbaugh, and some other conservative talk show hosts and pundits do indeed say ridiculous things, and I have sometimes denounced such people (and would do so more often, if I paid more attention to them). Whether political cooperation with these individuals is warranted will vary from case to case. You don't have to agree with all of a political ally's views, or even, to use Kleiman's terms, think that they are all "sane." Sometimes, association with "insane" allies is self-defeating because it tends to discredit the cause in the eyes of the public or because it indirectly serves to promote their more dangerous ideas. Other times, the insane have enough clout that an important battle can't be won without them. Consider, for instance, the Anglo-American alliance with Stalin during World War II. Only rarely will the circumstances justify allying with an evil as great as Stalin's. However, it takes a much less dire situation (like, say, a massive expansion of government) to justify some libertarian political cooperation with Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh - who are not exactly in Stalin's league as evildoers go.

UPDATE: I have edited this post to make a few grammatical and stylistic corrections.


Cass Sunstein and the Second Amendment:

Second Amendment Minimalism: Heller as Griswold appeared in a symposium issue of the Havard Law Review last fall. Sunstein examines the parallels between Heller and Griswold: "In both cases, the Court spoke on behalf of the contemporary sentiment of a national majority against a national outlier...No less than the right of privacy, and notwithstanding the backward-looking nature of the Court's opinion, the right to have guns is likely to evolve over time through case-by-case judgments made under the influence of contemporary social commitments."

Sunstein also notes an important distinction between Griswold and Heller:

There is an important historical difference to be pondered as well. Heller is the product of a mature current of constitutional thought, spurred by private groups but also by committed academics, that had clearly become prominent in nationwide politics and culture and that, by 2008, had established itself as thoroughly mainstream. In sharp contrast, Griswold was the result of an early effort by an incipient movement for reproductive rights and sex equality that had yet to become highly visible on the nation's cultural viewscreen. In this sense, Heller has far more in common with Brown v. Board of Education than with Griswold—in the particular sense that Brown, like Heller, was the culmination of a long process of advocacy, in a self-conscious effort to entrench a certain understanding of the Constitution in the interest of social reform. In short, Heller and Griswold have distinctive sociologies. While the two are both responsive to public convictions, the cultural backdrop for the two decisions was radically different.
As a description of judicial behavior, I think Sunstein's article is accurate. He would prefer that the Second Amendment be interpreted to uphold gun laws which I might consider to be infringements. However, Sunstein makes it clear that he considers Heller rightly decided; he is no originalist, but instead believes that the Court owed some deference to the moral commitments of tens of millions of Americans. Thus, Sunstein qualifies as among the most "pro-Second Amendment" of Obama administration nominees.

This is, admittedly, a very small group. Other than Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, I cannot think of any Obama nominee with a record of doing anything to support an individual Second Amendment right that includes the right to own a handgun.

I echo Ilya's point (see the chained post) that Sunstein has a much more pro-liberty perspective than anyone else that Obama might nominate to run the Office of Information and Regulatory Policy.

Update: A commenter has posted a video of a Sunstein lecture at U. Chicago in 2007 which presents a much more hostile attitude towards the individual right than is expressed in the Harvard article.

Still more: The American Spectator quotes an unnamed White House source:
"The goal from this White House is to have as much nonspecific language passed by Congress in policy areas like health care and the environment and then use Sunstein's office to put in place the regulatory language called for by Congress that gets us to where we want to be. It may very well be the most important job in this administration, given the lack of success we may have on Capitol Hill."


Potential Pitfalls of Political Alliances:

My recent exchange with Mark Kleiman over the issue of "fellow-traveling" with "wingnuts" raises the more general question of the dangers of political alliances. As I argued in my last post, it is sometimes necessary to make political alliances with people who we think hold flawed views or even "insane" ones (to use Kleiman's terminology). Such coalitions are a necessity for almost any political faction, but particularly a relatively small one such as libertarians. At the same time, coalition politics creates the danger that we will ignore or even try to justify the shortcomings of our political allies of convenience. The danger is real. But it doesn't justify abjuring all political alliances with people we strongly disagree with. Rather, the right approach is to recognize the problem and try to guard against it.

For example, I think that the current political situation justifies an alliance between libertarians and conservatives, who share a common interest in opposing the vast expansion of government advocated by the liberal Democratic administration and Congress. It's certainly possible that this view might lead me to ignore the shortcomings of conservatives. However, I have tried hard to keep that from happening. For example, I have not hesitated to criticize conservative icons such as Robert Bork and William F. Buckley. During the 2008 election campaign, I criticized Sarah Palin for her ignorance of important policy issues, even though I thought that the Republican ticket was the lesser of the two evils on offer last November. And I have a long record of criticizing the Bush Administration's massive expansion of government spending and regulation (e.g. - here and here). At one point, my sympathy with some of Palin's views on other issues may have led me to unjustifiably minimize her possible endorsement of creationism; however, I eventually noticed the mistake and corrected it. I suppose it's possible that I would have criticized various conservatives even more were I not in favor of a political alliance with them. But it's hard to argue that I have simply chosen to ignore their flaws from a libertarian point of view.

In sum, political alliances with people who hold what we see as flawed views are perfectly defensible so long as we don't blind ourselves to our allies' shortcomings. At the same time, it's important to make two distinctions. First, it's worth differentiating serious thinkers like Bork from far more dubious pundits such as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Association with the former is more defensible than with the latter. It would, of course, also be wrong to suggest that one must forego all cooperation with a political movement merely because it includes some extreme or ridiculous elements, since virtually any large political faction does so.

Second, there is a difference between active cooperation with a group and merely expressing views on a particular issue similar to theirs. In my post on "czars" that kicked off this discussion, I did not actually cooperate with Glenn Beck or other dubious right-wing pundits in any way. I merely expressed opposition to the czar system, an institution that they also oppose. I don't see why I should change my stance merely because people with ridiculous views on other, unrelated issues have the same position. If I instead supported the czar system, one could probably find equally ridiculous commentators who also hold that view. More generally, as Eugene Volokh explained in his post on the "reverse Mussolini fallacy," it is a mistake to reject a position merely because some of the people who endorse it are foolish or even evil.

Even active cooperation with the likes of Beck might be justified if a great enough good can be achieved through it. But we have to be careful that the good achieved really is great enough to justify the risks. I don't think you have to have meet anywhere near as high a standard if all you're doing is expressing a view that Beck also happens to hold, or cooperating with serious thinkers from a political orientation that also includes some crazies.


Cass Sunstein Confirmed:

Cass Sunstein's nomination to be head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has been approved by the Senate in a 57-40 vote. Sunstein is one of the nation's leading scholars on regulatory issues, and there is no question that he is well-qualified for the job. At the same time, I also think that Sunstein is wrong about a great many important issues, especially in the field of constitutional law.

That said, I believe that the conservative opponents of Sunstein's confirmation are missing the fact that most of his really controversial views have little connection to the office he was nominated for. On the regulatory issues covered by OIRA, Sunstein is actually less statist and relatively more sympathetic to free market approaches than are most other liberal Democrats. For example, in his book Nudge, Sunstein urges policies that are less coercive and paternalistic than those promoted by the existing regulatory state. Sunstein also is aware of the serious public choice problems with regulation, which he has written about in several publications. Obviously, he is still far more supportive of regulation than I am. But the relevant comparison from a libertarian point of view is that between Sunstein and anyone else likely to be appointed to the same position by Obama.

It's also worth pointing out that Sunstein's nomination has been attacked by pro-regulatory groups on the left, and that socialist Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders was among those who voted against confirmation (as did the strongly anti-free market Virgina Senator James Webb). In my view, Sunstein's left-wing opponents had a better grasp of the true significance of his nomination than his conservative ones.