Our Enemy the Administrative State

The vague "fundamental transformation" promised by Barack Obama prior to his first inauguration is nearly complete.  America's political system has been transformed from a constitutionally limited government into a modern administrative state of unlimited government.  A vast, extra-constitutional and unelected bureaucracy has been empowered with broad governing authority, including both legislative and judicial powers.  The unfolding scandals associated with an alphabet soup of government agencies such as the IRS, DOJ, and NSA, along with a myriad of actions taken by the HHS, EPA, DHS, and NLRB, illuminate the fundamental threat that this type of government poses to individual liberty and to the maintenance of a free society.

The origin of America's contemporary administrative state has been detailed by noted scholar and author Ronald J. Pestritto.  The idea began with the late 19th- and early 20th-century Progressive intellectuals, whose premise was that the constitutionally limited government of our Founders, set up to safeguard against the "old" problem of tyranny, was no longer needed in the modern democratic state.  Restrictions on government action needed to be lifted in order to solve the new social and economic injustices which these people believed were plaguing society.

The broad range of activities that the Progressives wanted the government to control through regulation was not possible under the existing separation of powers.  In order to achieve the degree of control that they deemed necessary, they envisioned an enlarged national administrative apparatus composed of agencies staffed by "thoroughly trained and completely educated men" responsible for setting policies, investigating violations, and adjudicating disputes in matters involving their specific areas of expertise -- a combination of powers completely incompatible with the Constitution.

Furthermore, they advocated that this new professional class of administrators be independent and free from political control, with wide latitude for discretionary action. Woodrow Wilson, one of the chief proponents of this system, believed that a secure position in the bureaucracy, with tenure and good pay, would relieve the civil servant of his natural self-interest, freeing him to focus solely on the objective good of society.

Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal," a response to the Great Depression, transformed these Progressive theories into a political movement, which in principle mandated a government solution for every economic and social problem.  Roosevelt launched a large bureaucracy, empowering it with broad governing authority, which gave birth to the modern American administrative state.  It has grown steadily over the years under the direction of both political parties, with major outgrowths during the "Great Society" of the Johnson years and with the proliferation of agency "czars" during the Obama years.

The consequences of implementing these Progressive ideas as the foundation of our contemporary government are profound.  Charlotte A. Twight, author of Dependent on DC: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, sums it up:

In the span of barely one lifetime, a nation grounded in the ideals of individual liberty has been transformed into one in which federal decisions control even such personal matters as what health care we are permitted to buy (as well as what type of light bulbs we can use, what type of toilets we can have in our homes, what size sodas we are allowed to consume, etc.)[.] ... A vast web of legal rules and regulations now enmeshes Americans in a tangle of law so complex, so contradictory, so uncertain, that most of us can no longer understand or comply with it.

Under this system, the objective rule of law has been increasingly undermined.  The tangle of rules and regulations make the exercise of any right uncertain.  Furthermore, the proliferation of rules and regulations over nearly every aspect of human conduct invites selective enforcement and discretionary interpretation by the prevailing government officials in charge.  Recent examples of this abound with respect to the DOJ and immigration and voter fraud enforcement, HHS and ObamaCare exemptions, and NLRB decisions against specific industries, to name a few.

In addition, the principle of equal protection under the law is effectively eviscerated when the government has the ability to play favorites, helping its supporters and harming its enemies.  Recent revelations demonstrate that our government is, in fact, engaging in such unlawful behavior regarding the IRS harassment of individuals and groups whose political ideology the current administration disagrees with.  Considering these trends, the implications of the recently exposed NSA personal data-gathering on ordinary citizens should be frightening to everyone.

Moreover, the freedom from self-interest and political control of the administrative class envisioned by the early Progressives is not possible.  The political party in charge appoints the agency heads, who in turn select the staff.  Many are members of public-sector unions who lobby politicians for concessions, using sizeable campaign donations.  Collusion develops where agencies quickly align themselves with politicians who will support them.  They will oppose those who criticize this cozy arrangement and threaten the beneficial status quo.

When government and its agencies are unbound by the separation of powers and the rule of law and routinely subordinate individual liberty to their arbitrary mandates, to which citizens have little or no recourse, authoritarianism replaces democratic self-rule.

Such is the legacy of "progress" that Progressives have created with their administrative state.

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