Few things are as enduring and permanent in American politics as the administrative state. The endless list of federal agencies—including such vital commissions as the “Board of Tea Appeals”—gives crushing weight to Milton Friedman’s quip, “Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet, put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.”
How—and why—did the administrative state proliferate to such a mind-boggling extent? We need look no further than the early Progressives, our current President’s intellectual predecessors.
A large bureaucratic state, Progressives hold, is the only means by which the government can fix the endless number of social, economic, and political problems that plague modern society.
But Progressivism isn’t just about the presumably better management of our national life. There is a reason why they chose “progress” as the byword of their movement.
At its root, Progressivism holds that human nature can be changed—and absolutely earthly happiness can be achieved—through the government’s benevolent guidance. Who holds our hand on this yellow brick road? The university-trained, dispassionate, scientific experts of the bureaucracy.
Don’t just take my word for it. Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the greatest Progressive theorist of the twentieth century, and certainly the most successful in his own political career, says as much in his essay, “The Study of Administration.”
Bureaucracy is necessary, Wilson argued, because there “is scarcely a single duty of government which was once simple which is not now complex.” Only an army of experts, groomed for bureaucratic rule at the most prestigious universities, can direct the modern machinery of government.
Wilson’s argument assumes that politics—with its elections, its compromises, and its fickle voting public—is a corrupting influence on the state’s pursuit of the common good. The administrative state should thus be “removed the hurry and strife of politics.” Its separation from the effects of elections (think of today’s EPA) ensures that public opinion does not become “meddlesome” in the pursuit of good public policy.
In the course of his argument, Wilson discarded the consent of the governed—bureaucrats are not elected—and limited government—bureaucrats can solve any public policy a problem. Why?
The answer lies in the Progressive’s definition of “political progress.” Progress, they argued, is more than a mere improvement in the science of politics. No, it is an improvement in human nature itself. The Founders’ Constitution can be discarded exactly because it failed to recognize that man’s nature changes over time. Where James Madison warned, “men are not angels,” the Progressives countered, “not yet.”
If man’s nature changes, then so must government. The Founders’ Constitution, with its carefully-constructed system of checks and balances and the separation of powers, does not recognize this putative fact of modern life. Thus, the Constitution must be interpreted by what Wilson called the “Darwinian Theory”—the “living Constitution.”
Bureaucracy is the “living Constitution’s” lynchpin. It is the means by which government encourages continued improvement in man’s nature. Evolution has made bureaucratic government possible; the bureaucracy ensures that evolution continues unabated. Franklin D. Roosevelt meant exactly this when, on the eve of the New Deal, he proclaimed that “the day of enlightened administration has come.”
Fast forward to today. We certainly have a vast administrative state. How “enlightened” it is remains a question. Is human happiness really a gift from bureaucrats, wrapped in reams of red tape?
The administrative state presents the American people with a choice: Either the Progressives are right, and regulatory agencies should continually mold and shape society in the pursuit of earthy salvation; or they are wrong, and a boundless bureaucracy only undermines the sovereignty of the American people. One thing is certain: we can’t have both.
Stephen Ford is the Research Manager at the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire