Government & Constitution

Obama, father of all czars

Obama, father of all czars

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution states: No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States[.] But when George Washington was elected, lawmakers debated what to call him.

Believe it or not, “His Highness,” “His Elective Majesty,” and “His Excellency—Protector of their Liberties” were all serious considerations. Thankfully, Washington ended the debate when he declared that pretentious European titles were ill suited for the “genius of the people” and the “nature of our government.” Good move, Mr. President.

But our government still loves titles.

The last two administrations have made extensive use of the word “czar” to describe unelected political appointees tasked with leading crusades against illegal drugs, AIDS, federal budget deficits, climate change, unsafe products, automobile company bankruptcies and the like. It bothered no one that “czars,” in history, were capricious absolute monarchs who presided over a system of government that cared little for human dignity, entrepreneurship, individualism or economic advancement. Which, come to think of it with regard to those administrations, might not be far off the mark.

But with “czar” having lost its luster, the current administration has turned to another title – “laureate.”

On Sept.10, the House Republican Leadership placed legislation on the afternoon suspension calendar –which is reserved for non-controversial bills – that would have created the position of Science Laureate, an honorary post to which the president could appoint up to three scientists each year.

Sounds innocuous, right?

We all remember President Eisenhower’s warning in his 1961 farewell address about the “military-industrial complex.” Less remembered but at least equally significant now was the other warning he gave in that speech – that we faced similar risks from what he called a scientific-technological elite. “Today the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields,” he said. “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

And that’s exactly the problem. It’s not a Democrat-vs.-Republican thing, it’s a government thing.  The U.S. government has the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and 18 other information centers, research policy councils or boards and departments and agencies devoted to science and technology research. It does not need a “science laureate.”

It’s just an honorary position with no pay, we are told. It’s just about recognizing some scientists and putting them on display to generate interest among kids in scientific careers. But which scientists will be chosen in an Obama administration? What about in a Ted Cruz administration? Would they be the same? If your answer is no, then you understand why naming a science laureate is a bad idea.

Science is a good thing and a valuable tool. Our high schools and colleges should teach it more and better. But let’s keep as much of it as possible in the private sector’s domain, where the scientific process can flourish in a genuine market of exploration and experimentation and true collegiality. As my colleague Fred Smith says, “The idea that arts, science and music are best honored politically is a bad idea generally. Let people vote with their contributions and their opinions—don’t allow government to decide for us.”

Fortunately, the science laureate position won’t be a reality anytime soon. Shortly after noticing the suspension calendar agenda that September afternoon, limited government activists, concerned the position would be used to promote a radical environmentalist agenda (and led by Larry Hart of the American Conservative Union and Myron Ebell of Freedom Action), mobilized in opposition to the legislation.  They awakened a distracted Republican majority and managed to have the bill removed from the calendar and pushed to the side, where it now lies idle.

And that’s how it should be. Creating White House-approved authorities on science would only further politicize a field that is far too politicized already. Or, as my colleague Iain Murray put it, it would help create a “Scientific Aristocracy,” and “as Americans, we should be against that.”

Interestingly, Murray is a transplanted Englishman. Glad to have our cousins from across The Pond to remind us, but it’s something we should always keep in mind.

Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (cei.org), a Washington public policy group that supports free markets and individual liberty.  

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