The Closet Moderate: Tsar of all the Bureaucrats

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tsar of all the Bureaucrats

When I was in law school, I worked one summer for Peter Swire, a former official in the Clinton administration. Apparently, Clinton offered Swire the job of "privacy czar," but Swire declined to use that informal title, using instead the full title of Chief Counselor for Privacy. Until recently, I thought he and I were the only people with an aversion to the term "czar" for an American government official. Today, however, this blog on Concurring Opinions came to my attention. As that bloggard, Lawrence Cunningham, notes:
The label matters. In American usage, czar is the word for “overseer” or “person in complete charge.” Its root is from Caesar, the Latin word, taken as Kaiser in German, thence into Russian and then English. First US use appears in 1832 when used to describe Nicholas Biddle, director of the United States Bank, dubbed Czar Nicholas for the autocratic power he wielded. The mainstream media’s influence in word choice appears in how, when The New York Times officially adopted czar as a shorter word than autocrat, in the late 1800s, it stuck as the pejorative label to describe House Speaker Thomas Reed.
Yes, the term was originally an insult, in the same way Whigs called Andrew Jackson "King Andrew" because they believed he acted like a monarch. This is politically incorrect, in the original sense of the word. Having a "czar" in our government, whether real or metaphorical, violates our republican principles (also in the original sense of those words).

Today, however, our moral degeneracy and medieval craving for authority has led us to use this term in a positive way. Rather than loving our democratic system, we crave the autocracy that a czar represents. Have we drifted so far from our revolutionary moorings that we now cheer for a putative emperor?

Now, I'm not crazy. I know that calling a man a czar doesn't make him Autocrat of all the Bureaucrats in anything but name. What's more, these fake monarchs don't actually behave anything like czars. They don't issue unchallengeable edicts, they don't call for pogroms, and they don't exile their enemies to Siberia. They're just trumped up bureaucrats issuing mundane regulations. But to someone who already thinks the administrative state is an unelected Lilliputian tyranny, tying America down with thousands of tiny bindings, each new use of this atrocious appellation sends a new chill down the spine. And anyone who loves liberty and democracy must believe that the title of czar deserves to stay dead and buried.

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