The objective of the American Founding was to break free of the old despotism, characterized by the arbitrary will of the stronger, based on force and fraud, masked by the false claims of long inheritance or divine right. Virtually every government at the time was based on a claim to rule without popular consent.
The Founders’ object was to establish the rule of law, decentralize political authority, and limit government to secure the unalienable rights with which man was endowed by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” They held that man, though fallible and full of passions, is capable of governing himself and that none was so much better than another as to rule him without his consent.
And yet here we are today, covered by a vast web of rules and regulations, endless policies and programs, all emanating from a central government, mostly the work of agencies and bureaucracies that for all intents and purposes operate outside the consent of the governed.
The greatest political revolution since the American Founding has been the shift of power away from the institutions of constitutional government to an oligarchy of unelected experts. They rule over virtually every aspect of our daily lives, ostensibly in the name of the American people but in actuality by the claimed authority of science, policy expertise, and administrative efficiency.
If this regime becomes the undisputed norm — accepted not only among the intellectual and political elites, but also by the American people, as the defining characteristic of the modern state — it could well mark the end of our great experiment in self-government.
Americans have always hated bureaucracy. One of the charges against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was that he “has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Who wants to be ruled by a national DMV? It is costly, inefficient, and, well, bureaucratic.
“It is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but their distribution, that good government is effected,” Jefferson warned. “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.”
For sure, the Founders understood the need for the good administration of government — an important aspect of the improved science of politics. But the administration was subordinate to the president, and thus indirectly responsible to the people through election. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton calls it a “heresy” to suggest that of all forms of government “that which is best administered is best.”
It was a new science of politics that offered the promise of technocracy. The French philosophes and utopians — deeply enamored of the endless promise of reason and modern science — saw the possibility of its ever-growing application to all aspects of the human condition. Just as science brought technological changes and new methods of study to the physical world, so it would bring great change and continuous improvement to society and man.
It was the late-19th-century Progressives who took this argument, combined it with ideas from German idealism and historicism, and Americanized it, seeking to replace U.S. constitutional politics with an administrative science over things.
This view of scientific rationalism questioned the very idea of self-governing citizenship: Liberty is no longer a condition consistent with human nature and the exercise of God-given natural rights, but an evolving concept to be socially constructed. Government is liberated from its limitations to become a dynamic and evolving rational state, constantly expanding and changing to achieve Progress.
In the administrative view, everything is socialized under the jurisdiction of the state, subject to be regulated, distributed, denied, or taken away in the name of social justice.
The term “bureaucracy” comes from the French for desk, and the Greek for rule. The word was originally satirical, but for the Progressive, the rule of clerks is a noble endeavor — they are the true “agents of democracy,” as Herbert Croly liked to say. Politics would provide rough guidelines, but the real details and decisions of administration would be handled by specialists, combining the power of government with the authority of science to bring about the betterment of society.
Out of this argument for the rule of professional guardians comes the theory of the “living” Constitution, of judicial experts trained in new-styled law schools to adapt the Constitution and the laws to the changing needs of the time.
This idea of enlightened administration is not merely an aspect of modern political life — an extension of the Founders’ recognition of the need for good administration, or a necessary adaptation of the existing structure. It is a new and all-encompassing form of political organization, a new “regime.” It represents, as Max Weber and others have argued, the final rationalization of politics.
As such, administrative government is not a symptom of the problem. It is the problem.
The United States has been moving down this path in fits and starts for some time, from the Progressive Era reforms through the New Deal’s interventions in the economy. But the real shift and expansion occurred more recently, under the Great Society and its progeny. The expansion of regulatory activities on a society-wide scale in the 1960s and 1970s led to vast new centralizing authority in the federal government, such that today the primary function of government is to regulate. The modern Congress is a supervisory body exercising oversight of the true lawmakers — administrative policymakers.
It is this model, what William Schambra calls “the policy approach,” that Americans are trapped in today. Everything — from financial restructuring to environmental regulation to immigration reform — must be dealt with comprehensively, meaning centrally and uniformly, based on the best science rather than politics and ideology.
The “health-care reform” legislation just enacted is the perfect example. Massive regulatory authority over one-sixth of the American economy, not to mention over most health-care decisionmaking, will be transferred to a collection of more than 100 federal agencies, bureaus, and commissions, along with new federal programs and an unprecedented delegation of power to the now-über-czar Secretary of Health and Human Services. Little or nothing will be allowed outside the new regulatory scheme — no alternative state programs, no individuals or businesses that choose not to participate, no truly private market alternatives.
If Obamacare becomes settled law, and its programs are fixed in place, it will go far in cementing the United States as a post-constitutional administrative state.
In assuming more and more tasks in more and more areas beyond its constitutionally prescribed responsibilities, modern government has done great damage to American self-rule. The extended reach of the state — fueled by its imperative to impose neutrality on the public square — continues to push traditional social institutions into the shadows of public life, undermining the moral fabric of America’s culture and civil society.
As a people, we have fallen into the habit of expecting government to solve not just social problems but personal ones, removing all risk from life and providing for all our needs and pleasures. It is commonplace now for individuals to look to government to relieve their most ordinary concerns, support their basic endeavors, and compensate them for the simplest injuries they suffer in daily affairs. All these demands are considered to be rights, and the list is ever-expanding.
By feeding the entitlement mentality rather than promoting self-reliance and independence, administrative government encourages a slavish character incompatible with republicanism. Once self-governing citizens are degrading themselves slowly into passive subjects of an impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state, and once citizens have given up liberty for comfortable security and the responsibility of self-government for the ease of government-as-parent, democratic government can become a type of soft despotism — which is less coercive in its methods and more benign in its concerns than hard despotism, but perhaps more despotic for this very reason.
The Left long has tried to persuade Americans that the rise of the Progressive state was inevitable and permanent. Yet a growing body of evidence, from tea parties to increasing opposition to the health-care law, suggests the question has not been settled — at least not by the American people. A recent Rasmussen survey found that 75 percent of Americans are angry about the policies of the expanding federal government, 71 percent view the government as an interest group, and 61 percent believe the government does not represent the consent of the governed.
The debate between the Founders’ constitutionalism and the Progressive paradigm meant to replace it is now engaged, perhaps as never before, in the American mind. Over the next months and years, and the next few elections, the matter will be decided, perhaps definitively, one way or the other.
Either the party of the modern state will unify its control and solidify its centralized model of government, or a new coalition of its opponents — unified by a healthy contempt for bureaucratic rule and a determination to reassert popular consent — will gain control of the political institutions of government and begin the difficult task of restoring real limits on government.
In this choice, all rests on the continuing capacity and resolve of the American people to govern themselves. The test Abraham Lincoln spoke of at Gettysburg, whether this nation based on equality and liberty can long endure, has returned to try our generation.
Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (ISI Books).
First appeared in The National Review Online