America Needs Less Federal Bureaucracy, Not More

The American Federal bureaucracy is under threat from Trump.  He has already politicized it, and a second term under his administration would lead to cronyism, incompetence, and corruption.  This threatens civil servants, who are loyal not to a single politician, but to the broader public.  What America needs instead is a second Pendleton Act to better insulate civil servants from the pressures of elected officials.

That, at least, is the argument of Francis Fukuyama in a recent Washington Monthly article.

To elaborate further on his argument, he contends that the federal bureaucracy is subject to too much control from elected officials.  This hampers the bureaucrats' ability to objectively pursue their mandate while at the same time reducing the incentive for the best and brightest to join the civil service.  This is a sad state of affairs when one considers the efficient service delivered by European bureaucrats, where there is almost no turnover when a new party gains power.  Fukuyama laments that the progressives were unable to completely "professionalize" the civil service and wishes we would do so now that it may be based on merit.  While American citizens do expect competent service from government workers and do want men and women to get those positions based on merit, Fukuyama's goal is inconsistent with the limited government of the Founders and the consent of the governed.

Many of the agencies Fukuyama praises are independent agencies.  They wield great power over the lives of Americans while threatening individual liberty and violating the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the unitary power of the Executive.  The "experts" who regulate practically all areas of life, whom Fukuyama praises, should not be free from political accountability.  Insulating bureaucrats from the public is unconstitutional and a danger to liberty.

The Founders recognized that the end of government is justice — the security of the individual natural rights of life, liberty, and property.  In order to secure these rights, individuals consent to establish a form of government.  Recognizing the frailties of human nature and the short-lived nature of republics, the Founders carefully crafted a regime that would combine energy with stability, all the while protecting liberty.  They did so through the improved science of politics: separation of powers, legislative checks and balances, a judiciary with lifetime appointments for good behavior, and the extended sphere.  The creation of the administrative state has abandoned these cherished principles.

The administrative state was created by the progressives at the beginning of the twentieth century for three chief reasons.  First, they thought the principles of the Founding had to be abandoned because the government needed to respond to a new set of economic and social conditions the Founders could not have anticipated.  Second, the end and scope of government needed to expand with the necessities of the times (think industrialization, modern corporations, and high finance).  Third, modern men needed no longer fear a tyrannical government because of the progress mankind and governments had made.  The principles of the progressives led to administrative agencies tasked with regulating numerous areas of society shielded from political influence to make policy on the basis of their skill, experience, and expertise.

The administrative state violates the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution in several key ways.  First, it violates the separation of powers.  Second, it violates the non-delegation doctrine.  Third, independent agencies prevent the executive from holding executive agencies accountable.  Fourth, agencies are prone to regulatory capture by the very entities or interests they are supposed to be regulating for the good of the public.

The Federal bureaucracy so praised by Fukuyama is praised for the reasons that make it a threat to liberty.  The American regime is one founded on the principle of the consent of the governed.  When American citizens choose their elected officials, they do so with the understanding that they will govern based on their campaign promises.  For the executive, this requires men and women loyal to him who will enact his agenda.  This is consistent with liberty because the citizens of America were able to deliberate and vote for the candidate they thought best served them and the nation.  To defer to unelected bureaucrats, to allow men who are insulated from the desires of the public and who rule based on credential expertise, is to undermine this cherished principle of liberty.  The actions of these men and women, unelected and elected, should be consistent with the ends of the Declaration and the process established in the Constitution and subsequent laws.

Francis Fukuyama is right.  The American bureaucracy needs to be reformed.  Congress should make structural and appropriations reforms to regulatory agencies.  First, heads of executive agencies must serve at the will of the president rather than with "for cause" removal protections.  Second, the combination of powers wielded by agencies must be eliminated.  Third, Congress should pass legislation rather than providing an overly broad mandates under which agencies then govern.  Fourth, all agency appropriations should be approved by Congress in accordance with the principle "no taxation without representation."  These reforms will help protect us from the soft despotism of the bureaucracy and help preserve limited government.  It is consistent with our history and our traditions.