The French Revolution produced many horrors, but none more so than The Reign Of Terror when thousands were sent to the guillotine in the name of public safety. The name most often associated with the horrors that transpired at that time in France is Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre was one of the leaders of the French Revolution that culminated in the beheading of King Louis XVI.
The Revolution that began with the slogan Liberté, égalité, fraternité quickly turned inward on itself. With France engaged in war with Austria and Prussia Robespierre ascended to head the Committee of Public Safety which held the executive power in revolutionary France. Robespierre began to consolidate power to protect the Republic from enemies foreign and domestic. He began to see enemies everywhere. To protect the French population from these terrorists and enemies of the state, Robespierre launched The Reign Of Terror. The Committee of Public Safety began to deploy spies everywhere. Any hint of dissent was viewed as against the public good and the dissenters were quickly dispatched via the guillotine.
In unleashing the Reign of Terror, Robespierre believed he was upholding the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity by protecting the Republic from terrorists that sought to undermine it. The ends began to justify the means. Ultimately however, the Terror that he unleashed not only consumed the Revolution, but its also consumed Robespierre himself. Robespierre was sent to the guillotine by the very forces that he set into motion.
Robespierre was a follower of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, in The Social Contract (Penguin Classics) and subsequent works, argued that a social contract exists between the governed and the ruler. The contract rests on the belief that there is a notion of a general will of the people that the ruler is given the authority to protect and defend. The ruler is endowed with unlimited executive power to protect the general welfare of the governed. Rousseau’s theory does not allow any constraints on the power of the ruler in defense of the general will. In other words, the ruler has inherent power to ignore laws of the Republic. Rousseau was one of the first modern thinkers to formulate the ideas of the Unitary Executive. A number of corollaries quickly follow from Rousseau’s theory. Since the ruler is charged with defending the general will any opposition or public dissent is deemed to be against the greater good of the general will and the Republic.
By taking Rousseau’s social contract to its logical extreme, Maximilien Robespierre became arguably the first practitioner in Western Civilization of the theory of the Unitary Executive.
Today in the United States we are again confronted with Rousseau’s Unitary Executive. Fortunately there are no guillotines in the streets; however, the stakes today are equally high. The Unitary Executive is being used to justify violations of the Fourth Amendment, indefinite detentions, excessive secrecy, leaking of classified information for political purposes; and torture.
The Unitary Execute theory grants the President the power to determine what is in the public interest. Thus, today we were told by the President’s Press Secretary that when the President leaks classified information it is for the greater good, when a whistleblower leaks to the New York Times about warrant-less spying it’s aiding the terrorists. Mr. McClellan took the theory even further today by accusing anyone who questions the President’s motives in leaking the classified information as being "crass" and anti-American. Any dissent, true to the logic of the Unitary Executive, is considered aiding and abetting the enemy.
The Unitary Executive as the rise and fall of Robespierre demonstrated has one major systemic flaw. The belief in the rightness of the ruler to be the soul arbiter of what is in the general will, or national interest, leads to a stifling of ideas within the Executive. Any hint of dissent, even from within, is dealt with harshly. Ultimately the internal contradictions of this theory cause the Executive to cannibalize itself.
I believe signs of this collapse from within have been growing in the Administration. The departure of Scooter Libby was only part of this long slide into failure. We have now seen Andy Card leave and soon we will see others leave or be pushed out (the political equivalent of the guillotine) as this Unitary Executive proceeds to emasculate itself.
In the end, we are left with a touch of irony as the Administration that famously despises all things French is now crumbling under the burden of the Unitary Executive – a theory devised by the French philosopher Rousseau.