How the Administrative State Subverts the Constitution
The House of Representatives on February 2 passed a bill — H. Con. Res. 9 — opposing the "implementation of socialist policies" and "denouncing socialism in all its forms." More than a hundred Democrats joined Republicans in a 327-86 vote on the bill, fittingly sponsored by Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), daughter of exiles from Fidel Castro's Cuba. Fittingly, too, the bill quoted President James Madison, the father of the Constitution, who wrote that the United States "was founded on the belief in the sanctity of the individual, to which the collectivistic system of socialism in all of its forms is fundamentally and necessarily opposed."
How did we get to a state when it has become necessary to denounce socialism by legislation? For indeed, this is an unprecedented time in America: an Axios and Momentive poll of June 2021 found that 51% of young adults (18–34 years) have a positive view of socialism; age groups 35–64 and 65+, too, showed slight upticks in those favoring socialism.
How did Marxist ideology gain ground in the proud home of individual liberty? From a representative government beholden to "we the people" and committed to guarding our constitutional rights, how did we get to a government that tells citizens what they can and cannot do, all in the name of the public good?
Trust Us, a new film from the Pacific Legal Foundation, is an excellent chronicle of the socialist seduction of America over 100 years. It traces the implementation of progressive policies from the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who believed in proactive, expansive government, to the present-day regulatory environment, where unelected, unaccountable "experts" decide on everything from health care to privacy.
This technocracy is rooted in the fin de siècle fascination with the efficient running of giant corporations, particularly with Frederick Winslow Taylor's "scientific management." Taylorism, which many scholars have described as "enlightened despotism," came into favor in the late 19th century. Extending the ideas he implemented in factories to government, Taylor believed that expert planning was superior to the instincts of the people and that "consent of the governed" should be supplanted by broad, centralized executive management. Expert opinion was hubristically seen as superior to that of business-owners with generations of experience, which was dismissed with disdain.
Taylorism was a self-serving idea for progressives, who came to believe that their expert status was the driving force for improving society. They dismissed the American ideal of the government as a servant of the people and were eager to limit individual rights, categorize people by intelligence and ability, break up jobs into their components, and regiment how they are carried out — all in the name of productivity.
Not surprisingly, they saw the Soviet Union as an ideal. After a visit to the USSR at Stalin's invitation, American progressives marveled at his accomplishments. Not seeing beyond the window dressing, and with no idea of the rampant starvation, the horrific gulags, and the mass executions of dissidents and whole ethnicities, they gave glowing reports of Soviet life under his tyrannical rule.
Unfortunately, many of these advocates of Marxism and Leninism became advisers to Franklin Roosevelt as part of the Brain Trust and helped formulate the New Deal. The Great Depression — and the economic chaos, widespread starvation, and 20% unemployment it engendered — provided the perfect opportunity to coerce troubled Americans into accepting government overreach. Roosevelt created numerous agencies with wide-ranging powers to administer central planning and impose severe restrictions on the quintessentially American ideal of a competitive market, killing many small businesses. Expert committees mandated how many chickens a farmer could produce and what price they could be sold at. They ordered cuts in agricultural production to stabilize prices, even destroying surplus food while many were going hungry. Given the terrible conditions of the depression, Americans acquiesced in fear.
Eventually, it was a chicken company — A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. — that challenged the oppressive National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), a main component of the New Deal, in the Supreme Court. By unanimous decision, the court ruled in 1935 that key parts of the act and its delegation to expert panels of matters that should in fact be legislated were unconstitutional. The Schechter case was one of a series of rulings against the New Deal. Evidently, the managerial state had failed to stimulate economic recovery and in fact extended the Depression.
But that wasn't the end of rule by the bureaucracy. Harry Truman foisted another such program — the Fair Deal — on Americans who had grown accustomed to centralized power under the New Deal. Part of the Fair Deal initiative was the American Housing Act of 1949. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was charged with clearing slums and developing housing in large, dense urban developments.
One of the FHA's monumental failures was the Pruitt-Igoe apartment complex in St. Louis, comprising 33 eleven-story high-rises constructed with federal funds. No citizen input was solicited, though this was one of the largest public housing projects of its time. Residents, who started living there in 1954, likened the buildings to prisons. Within a decade, the complex was plagued by low occupancy, poor maintenance, vandalism, and rampant crime. Elevators skip-stopped at every third floor, ostensibly to encourage neighbor interactions, leaving residents prey to criminals who lurked in the dark stairwells. Nobody wanted to live in a complex that required high residency to remain solvent and ensure proper upkeep. The complex was demolished in 1976. The experts were proved wrong: projects that didn't serve citizens' needs or foster human dignity were bound to fail.
But the influence of the experts in U.S. government persisted. They did not desist from exerting central control over the economy, housing, and business.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ushered in the Great Society, a series of policy initiatives, legislation, and programs aimed at stamping out poverty. This is considered one of the largest social reform plans in modern history. The administrative state grew in size and power. It issued food stamps, expanded Social Security, increased housing assistance, and created Medicare and Medicaid. But the ambitious project caused the unraveling of family stability: transfer payments from the Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) program were given only to single-parent households, and this incentivized absentee fathers. Bureaucratic inefficiency and fraud resulted in wide gaps in coverage under policy programs and caused losses that citizens bore in higher taxes. This so-called War on Poverty only increased dependence — antithetical to the American spirit of individualism and enterprise — and raised the taxpayer burden.
Trust Us concludes that the administrative state lives on today in regulations created not by elected lawmakers, but by bureaucrats of the EPA, FDA, SEC, and a plethora of alphabet agencies. It exercises the powers of all three branches of government, obliterating the constitutional separation of powers and inbuilt checks and balances. These agencies now tell citizens how to protect their health, what to eat, how to interact with the environment, and more. The pandemic experience exemplified bureaucratic control: a fearful public surrendered to the mandated masking, social distancing, lockdown, and vaccination — all in the name of science. The experts were above questioning; skeptics faced job loss, arrest, ostracism, and cancelation on social media.
Our Founding Fathers created a constitution with separation of powers and checks and balances to safeguard individual rights and liberty. The administrative state — with no accountability to the American people — subverts our founders' hallowed vision. As Prof. Don J. Boudreaux says in the PLF film, "the lesson I draw from the effects of the administrative state is that it's a bad deal."
We must take back control; return to a government of, by, and for the people; and end this bureaucratic overreach once and for all.
Image via Max Pixel.