Presidential Harassment Is a Public Good

The resurgent efforts to impeach President Trump have him again falling back on a regularly-used trope: “Presidential harassment.” Since November 2018, the President has tweeted this saw dozens of times, typically when he is challenged or criticized.

Most of the drumbeat against Trump since he became President has been partisan. The nature of this particular chief executive has been as polarizing as any since “That Man” assumed office, with opposition to his policies travelling assiduously along ideological and party lines. Having said that, there are any number of areas in which the current President has evaded, for explained or unexplained reasons, conventional wisdom. His trade policy, for example, flies in the face of centuries of post-mercantilist theory and evidence.

What is currently being called harassment is, in the first instance, a procedural maneuver — and one to which the President has exposed himself. Impeachment is a fundamental check upon the power of the Executive Branch and does not, in and of itself, stipulate or necessarily end with removal from office. More importantly, the President himself has expressed incontrovertiblesupport for law and order and voiced his disgust at double standards. He has indicated his understanding that powerful individuals and institutions should be held to higher standards of conduct. It is only appropriate that he falls within the same purview.

Unrelenting scrutiny of any President – and politicians in general, whether candidates or within an Executive, Legislative, or Judicial capacity – is an indisputable public good. I mean that in a technical sense.

A public good, economically speaking, is one that features both non-excludability and nonrivalrous consumption: non-excludability indicates that preventing nonpayers from enjoying the benefits of the good is either prohibitively expensive or impossible, while non-rivalrousness describes the ability to consume a good without encroaching upon others’ consumption. National defense, for example, is both nonexcludable (individuals who don’t pay for it nevertheless partake in its benefits) and nonrivalrous (being defended doesn’t reduce the amount of defense available for others). In mainstream economic theory, public goods are provisioned by governments because private firms would be unwilling or unable to offer them.

The caution that high degrees of criticism (what the current President calls “harassment”) exacts from public officials is wholly nonexcludable: everyone benefits, from supporters to defenders to the politically disinterested. And it is non-rivalrous insofar as the cost of extending the boon of an overcautious, chastened politician to the marginal citizen (and even non-citizens, considering the interventionist tendencies of recent administrations) is essentially zero. And unlike public education, street lights, and the prototypical example — roads — this public good is actually provided by and for the public.

The theory of public goods was originally conceived of as a justification for suspicion of the presence of imperfect markets. Why will they not give us all that we ask? Thus did economists manufacture rules to discern standards by which we could know. The above lays it out in some detail. As it turns out the theory of public goods, however justified, does not make a case that the state is the solution. Indeed, by subjecting the state to the same standard, you end up with an empirical case against power, and perhaps a reason to distrust power.

Suspicion of power thus itself achieve the status of a public good.

There has never been an era of clean politics, never in the entire history of humanity. The Founders themselves made accusations about one another: the Adams vs. Jefferson campaigns heralded the birth of dirty tricks in the years just after the American Revolution. It’s pathetic, flatly, that anyone occupying the office of the allegedly most powerful position in the world would suddenly succumb to the rankest form of victimology.

Politics attract individuals who seek power. Power itself is not virtuous. It most often represents vice: the will to rule over others. Whether they seek higher office to effect change (and bearing in mind that the nature of change varies drastically with different viewpoints) or simply to rule, the draw is control: whether that which comes with a “pen and a phone,” as one former President put it, or from commanding the largest killing machine in the history of the world, or from the promise of securing a permanent berth in the rolls of history.

By whatever title it falls under – checks and balances, sunlight as the “best of disinfectants”, “Presidential harassment”, or other – those individuals should constantly be questioned, badgered by precedent, and each among their peers made to constantly look over their shoulders.

This is not a radical claim. Thomas Jefferson said exactly this:

It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights; that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism; free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power; that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no farther, our confidence may go…

His statement pertains to all power, not just the power you don’t like versus the power you do. If you are suspicious of the power of the state and its executive, you are doing good for others. The greatest danger to the public, more so than any threatened evil, is the present evil. Forget that at your peril.

Peter C. Earle


Peter C. Earle is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2018 and prior to that spent over 20 years as a trader and analyst in global financial markets on Wall Street. His research focuses on financial markets, monetary issues, and economic history. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, NPR, and in numerous other publications. Pete holds an MA in Applied Economics from American University, an MBA (Finance), and a BS in Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter.

This article is republished with permission from the American Institute for Economic Research.

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