Commentary

America Does Not Need More Czars

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared on Marketplace on November 19, 2008

Remember America’s can-do, point man in the war on drugs, the so-called “Drug Czar?” Well, if you like czars, you’ll love President-elect Barack Obama. He’s proposing a new “technology czar,” he’s considering a “climate czar,” and he’s even floated the idea of a “car czar.”

In tough times like these, America does not need a dose of tragic Russian authoritarianism. America does not need more czars.

Did you know that the Constitution does not mention czars even once? I know, weird. The president’s cabinet is composed of heads of various executive offices. These offices, like the Department of Education, are generally proposed by the president and approved by Congress. But the president can create new sub-cabinet-level offices more or less at will — which is where most so-called “czars” dwell.

Since Nixon created the first “energy czar” in 1973, our government has become czar-crazy. But why? Has a czar ever delivered anything more than the illusion that somebody’s got things under control? Jimmy Carter bestowed upon America two inflation czars who then czared inflation to all-time highs. Reagan gave us the Drug Czar, and now that problem’s licked!

Czars and special new offices are mainly political theater — the equivalent of “looking busy.” But they can do harm. Czarmania is a symptom of the dangerous ongoing expansion of executive power. The idea that we need an executive branch czar implies that our democratic law-making bodies don’t have sufficiently singular will to just get it done.

Czars are too often a cosmetic reaction to problems government itself created. Politicians promise much, but government too rarely delivers. In the end, it’s the innovation and enterprise of private citizens, not a swarm of pint-sized Caesars, that really delivers the goods.

Media Appearance Will Wilkinson says the only thing czars are good at is looking busy on Marketplace (November 19, 2008) [MP3]

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.