So I should have known: the most astute analysis of Obama’s semi-amnesty is by Bryan Caplan. In particular, Caplan gets at a thought that was starting to form in my mind, too, namely, what a nice thing a doctrine of presidential “nullification” might be. By “nullification,” I (and Caplan) mean that presidents could just decide not to enforce laws that they disagreed with especially strongly, which is suggested by Obama’s semi-amnesty. Of course, the Obama administration probably wouldn’t want to characterize it that way, and I’m sure the lawyers could develop other, less controversial defenses of the move which would have better (probably almost certain) odds of passing judicial muster. Or in brief: presidential nullification seems to be rather a constitutional innovation, of rather dubious legality, whereas Obama’s move is probably quite legally defensible on other, surer grounds. Still, it might set a precedent that would amount to a kind of doctrine of presidential nullification. Is that something that should make open borders support hesitate in applauding this? OK, strike that, stupid question; it’s pretty obvious that whatever constitutional principles are at stake are less morally urgent than the need to stop deporting innocent people. Let me rephrase: would there even be any significant downside to a doctrine of presidential nullification? Or as Kling and Caplan formulate it:
Kling: My reading of the policy is that the President is nullifying a law by refusing to enforce it. That is a precedent that could come back to haunt us.
Caplan: I say the laws on the books are so overwhelmingly wrong that even random Presidential nullification would be a huge expected improvement. My question for Arnold: What’s the best law any future President is likely to nullify due to Obama’s precedent? I just don’t see this slippery slope leading anywhere we should fear to slide.
Exactly. What if a President Romney refused to enforce the individual mandate provision of Obamacare? Fine by me. What if a President Romney passed de facto tax cuts by just instructing the IRS not to collect some kinds of tax? Well, 1) that wouldn’t be so terrible, and 2) it seems unlikely to happen.
Obama’s semi-amnesty does seem contrary to the spirit of the rule of law, even if he could probably make a strong claim that it’s legal. But we shouldn’t speak as if “rule of law” is an unqualified good. It depends on the content of the laws. If it’s a choice between a more chaotic situation and a more coercive situation, the former is usually better. Continue reading Is There a Downside to Presidential Nullification?