The presidency

Excerpt

Alexander Hamilton was the first great theorist of the American executive. He believed that a vigorous president was necessary for the flourishing of the republic, that the president had to possess core virtues (a strong sense of justice, commitment to the national interest, prudence, courage), and that it was essential to create a selection process to weed out demagogues who would manipulate public fears, vanities, and prejudices to acquire and maintain power.

This “soul” was “lost” very soon after the Founding itself. Washington was a perfect embodiment of the Hamiltonian presidency . . . but Thomas Jefferson’s misguided faith in popular sovereignty led to an ineluctable process of presidential democratization. With this came all sorts of problems endemic to majoritarian tyranny: prejudice toward ethnic and racial minorities, undermining of the rule of law, and the proliferation of political corruption. The first truly demagogic president in Knott’s view was Andrew Jackson, and the “lowlights” of presidential governance include Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and above all Donald Trump, the “apotheosis of the popular presidency.”

A tax on plastic?

Excerpt

California already has a long history of so-called sin taxes designed to reduce environmental and health risks. Some of the revenue from its tobacco tax, for instance, funds early childhood development programs. And a plastic tax is a sort of sin tax, only on a global scale. “In general, a great way to raise revenue is through sin taxes,” says MIT economist Christopher Knittel, who studies carbon taxes.

Civil disobedience

Henry David Thoreau (1849)

When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquillity, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it.

For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects.

It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs . . .

Until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.

Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself. “Pay,” it said, “or be locked up in the jail.” I declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it.

I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster; for I was not the State’s schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription. I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the Church.

However, at the request of the selectmen, I condescended to make some such statement as this in writing: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it.

The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to its original presumption that time. If I had known how to name them, I should then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list.

SOURCE: American Studies (U Virginia)