No Need for a Conspiracy Theory

In recent days, social media like Twitter and Facebook have taken action to prevent Q-Anon, a shadowy entity that promotes various conspiracy theories, including the "Deep State," from using their platforms.  For those who haven't been following this matter, the "Deep State" is basically also a shadowy conspiracy, within the government, that seeks to undermine the policies of Republicans.

Why a conspiracy is necessary is something of a mystery: the same people who believe that thousands or even millions of people can keep such a conspiracy secret over years, decades, or even millennia often have difficulty recognizing that a pair of people could conspire to pick their pocket while walking in the street.  Resistance from within the government to policies advocated by Republicans doesn't require a conspiracy — only that the personnel of that government pursue their personal interests.

I call such people the "permanent government," people who have chosen to make their careers in and off government.  The existence of these people is not open to any serious debate: residents of the Washington area see them morning and evening, commuting in and out of the city; they're why suburban Washington exists, why the Beltway has a near permanent traffic jam, and why it became necessary to build a modern subway system.  Some of these people, mainly at lower levels, are largely unaffected by what policies are being pursued, while for others, those policies have direct consequences.

Personnel in policy positions have personal interests that influence what they recommend and what they do.  For all bureaucrats, the survival of their particular agency is an imperative because it may determine whether that bureaucrat has a job and how much he is paid.  Expanding the agency is beneficial because it opens up potential promotions within the larger agency.  Service in government provides bureaucrats with contacts who can later be approached if a "retired" bureaucrat goes into lobbying.  Obviously, a policy that might result in trimming, closing, or consolidating an agency, or cutting one off from those potential contacts, is to be avoided if possible and thwarted if necessary.

Democrats favor the expansion of government, while Republicans typically oppose that.  The result is exactly what upsets "Deep State" believers: bureaucrats acting to thwart Republicans when they control the government.

This effect isn't observed across all of government.  Several activities, mainly of a technical nature, are basically without serious controversy, but there are others where the imperatives of the permanent government lead to perverse results: anti-poverty programs, anything dealing with race, and foreign policy, to name three.

The perverse incentives for bureaucrats in poverty-fighting programs couldn't be more stark: if they ever succeed in eliminating poverty, their jobs will disappear, so they have an incentive to do just enough to prevent poor people from realizing what's going on, without doing enough to make much difference.  Giving people the proper incentives to learn to make good decisions is the way to end most poverty, but that would result in a serious reduction in their agencies, so they don't do that.  Their personal interests compel them to back whatever party is willing to endorse this scam.  Right now, that's the Democrats.

A similar problem exists for bureaucrats engaged in combating racism.  Should the issue ever be deemed resolved, they would be out of a job.  That's why we went from the worthy goal of dismantling Jim Crow to taking up arms against "micro-aggressions," offenses so slight that the perpetrator wouldn't be aware of them unless instructed by the victim.  Success on that front would undoubtedly lead to discovery of "nano-aggressions," even more minor offenses of which the victims would be unaware unless instructed by their leaders.  "Nano-aggressions" will ensure a new set of battlefields to preserve the anti-racism agencies in government and the jobs that go with them.

Foreign policy is conducted by foreign service officers (FSO), who are a largely self-selecting "fraternity."  Members play a significant role in enabling or preventing access to these jobs, and they can use it for their own purposes, as I discovered when I applied.  As bureaucrats, FSOs advance by doing as they are instructed by their superiors.  For those superiors, the goal is often to be appointed as an ambassador or to obtain a sinecure funded by a foreign government, which can result in the FSO acting as an advocate for the state in which he serves rather than for America.  If that means undermining the president's choices on foreign policy, so be it.

The permanent government is one of three vertices for what political scientists have called the "iron triangle," usually said to consist of members of Congress, constituency groups, and members of the bureaucracy.  The geometry is a little off because there is a fourth component whose function is also part of the permanent government: lobbyists.

There are two types of lobbyists.  The first group are often lawyers who act as "hired guns" for corporations.  Their incomes depend on doing what the corporation wants, and they have become rather good at it: Steven Brill made their activities one of his principal concerns in Tailspin.  "Retired" bureaucrats often find high-paying jobs in this sector.

The second group includes lobbies established to promote "causes": they have to set up an organization, get the word out, and raise funds.  Once that's done, the insiders have a vested interest in maintaining the organization; the organization may die if its supporters conclude that its mission has been accomplished, so they can't ever admit that has happened.  Exhibit A for this process on race: Al Sharpton.

The self-serving triangle is completed by members of Congress,m who depend on these issues to garner votes.  If the policies for which they vote actually solve the problem, such representatives will have to find other issues to appeal for votes, so they, too, have no reason to support approaches that may solve problems rather than just maintain and manage them.  As long as they can rely on the bureaucrats and lobbyists to preserve the pretense that government is doing the best job possible, they have no reason to fear voter rejection.  Note that the voters are left out of this triangle.

It doesn't take a conspiracy for people to do what they perceive as being in their own interests, so a "Deep State" isn't necessary to produce the results its advocates have observed and bemoaned.  To get it under control would require a fundamental change in how government is staffed.  Policy-makers might be given a deadline for accomplishing the goal stated in legislation.  If they achieve it, they are given another assignment.  If not, then they're out and replaced by others — either someone who has achieved his goals elsewhere in the bureaucracy or entirely new people.  We'll know whether this assessment is correct by which party howls at the prospect that this approach might be adopted.

Yale Zussman is an MIT-trained political scientist.