It seems there’s a lot of top-down governance happening recently. Whether it’s Supreme Court decisions that fundamentally alter the way the law interprets marriage to President Obama’s recent measure on gun control.
The question is whether or not this kind of top-down governance is good?
First, it’s not really fair to group executive orders together with court decisions, as the latter are an integral component to honing the legal system. Courts are there to interpret laws and ensure they are followed. On the flip side, when it comes to the legislative process, the job of the executive branch is neither to make nor interpret laws, but to sign them into existence.
Executive orders juggle the roles, giving the president the possibility to circumvent the normal legislative process and enact laws.
That, for us, is the real problem with executive orders. They should not replace the legal process, because by doing so, they devalue the entire system of governance.
Sure, presidents have been doing this since the beginning of US history, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing. Many executive orders dealt with internal, bureaucratic matters, such as Obama’s last year granting federal employees a holiday on Dec. 24. No harm, no foul. But making decisions on the issues of the day, whether immigration or gun control, both of which Obama has done, it smacks of autocracy.
At the same time, however, who could forget the most famous executive order of all, Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states — although detractors have their opinion on that one too: Why only slaves in the southern states, and the cynics say the Proclamation was more about soldier recruitment than morality. In the same vein, there was Dwight Eisenhower’s executive order enforcing desegregation, again, a pivotal and positive step in the moral trajectory US history.
Then there were the disasters, like Andrew Jackson’s Specie Circular of 1836, which led to the panic of 1837 and a five-year economic depression. There’s a reason the legislative process exists, and there’s a reason it’s slow and deliberate, despite how frustrating that may seem. Rash thinking and good governance usually don’t go hand in hand. Nor does one person and his administration deciding what’s right for the country as a whole and ignoring the democratic process.
Or the morally repugnant executive orders, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s that confined any American at least 1/16th Japanese to internment camps during World War II.
It seems sometimes this kind of top-down thinking can be right — morally and practically, and sometimes it’s wrong — also morally and practically. But how to tell the difference in the moment?