You’re probably heard critics of Barack Obama warn that his goal is to make America more European. Each critic probably means something different by that. I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories about the president’s motives. When I say that Obama is making America more like Europe, I have a particular trend in mind: his interest in empowering administrators and regulators at the expense of elected representatives.
Europe was the birthplace of modern, representative government. Unfortunately, the self-inflicted wounds of two world wars led well-meaning European leaders in the 1940s and 1950s to embrace a vision of Europe as something more than a geographical region, a common market, or a common cultural zone. They believed it was essential to subjugate national interests and institutions under a confederation of states, and eventually a union, in which bureaucrats in Brussels enjoyed significant authority over issues previously left to elected legislators and local governments.
The pattern was set from the very beginning. As Luuk van Middelaar writes in his new history of the European Union, in 1951 six countries sent officials to a signing ceremony for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the common market and, later, the EU. However, the six countries had yet to agree on the actual text of the treaty. Rather than wait, each country’s representative simply signed a blank piece of paper and left it to lower-level bureaucrats to write up the specifics later. “The spirit of the accord,” van Middelaar explained, “stood surety for the letter.”
It was a telling sign of things to come. As Daniel Hannan explains in a perceptive review in the current print edition of National Review, during the early 1960s the European Court of Justice asserted that its rulings superseded national constitutions and applied directly to European individuals and companies. Pro-EU functionaries then routinely ignored the expressed will of their country’s citizens to impose greater control over the continent from Brussels. Aware of the potential unpopularity of creating an official European Union flag, the bureaucrats proposed only a “logo” with 12 gold stars on a blue background. This “logo” happens to be imprinted on rectangular cloths attached to flagpoles, but officially the EU super-state has no flag.
The worst recent abuse, Hannan writes, has been a series of Great Recession bailouts of profligate nations and inefficient companies that EU treaties clearly forbid. EU officials and like-minded national leaders decided that the letter of the law didn’t prevent them from acting as they saw fit.
Are you seeing the parallels yet? Consider the president’s signature program, Obamacare.
First, while the 2009-10 Congress didn’t actually produce a blank piece of paper, few members had a clear understanding what the Affordable Care Act contained — and much of what the bill contained wasn’t health care policy, anyway, but instructions to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to craft health care policy. Later, a panicky chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing that the individual mandate as originally drafted was outside the bounds of the federal government’s delegated powers, rewrote the provision as a permissible federal tax that wouldn’t actually coerce anybody to comply (ignoring the fact that if the bill was a federal tax, it was arguably unconstitutional for a different reason.)
Furthermore, as various provisions of the law have become inconvenient — such as the “pay or play” insurance mandate on employers and the enforcement of eligibility rules on health-exchange subsidies — President Obama has asserted his authority to delay or disregard the provisions at his discretion.
Is he the first chief executive to abuse executive power? Far from it. But rarely has a president been so brazen about it. When pressed to explain why he is willing to delay the business mandate but not the individual mandate, President Obama offered not a substantive distinction but rather an accusation that his critics were “messing with him,” as if a debate involving billions of dollars and the fundamental rights of American citizens is little more than a playground scuffle.
Although some European countries have particular policies, such as pro-growth tax codes and parental choice in education, that I’d love to see North Carolina and the rest of America emulate, I have no desire to live in Europe. I am not alone. The net flow across the Atlantic Ocean remains overwhelmingly east-to-west, not west-to-east. Nor do I want the worst excesses of European centralism and bureaucracy imported to America.
The British tried something like that in the 18th century. I consider the matter settled.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.