Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

They Said It:

But how much are we to blame for what has happened?  Beginning with the traumatic experience of the Great Depression, we the people have turned more and more to government for answers that government has neither the right nor the capacity to provide.  But government, as an institution, always tends to increase in size and power, not just this government — any government.  It’s built-in.  And so government attempted to provide the answers.

The result is a fourth branch added to the traditional three of executive, legislative, and judicial: a vast federal bureaucracy that’s now being imitated in too many states and too many cities, a bureaucracy of enormous power which determines policy to a greater extent than any of us realize, very possibly to a greater extent than our own elected representatives.  And it can’t be removed from office by our votes.

Ronald Reagan, “Whatever Happened to Free Enterprise,” Hillsdale College’s Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series, November 10, 1977. (Hat tip:  Steven Hayward).



One of the hazards of conservatism is that it is, on occasion, susceptible to the promotion of fallacious logic.  When one cites the “wisdom of the ages” as an authority, one necessarily runs the risk of citing and accepting the “wrong” wisdom.  The smartest and most sagacious men and women in history were still mere men and women, which is to say that they were prone to making mistakes of their own.  And their wisdom on one subject or on one part of a subject is not necessarily transferable to everything or even, for that matter, every aspect of their topic of study.

We have been thinking a great deal about this obvious but often overlooked fact a great deal lately, in light of the new realities revealed by the current political milieu.  Specifically, we have been reevaluating the wisdom and the observational prowess of one of our favorite writers/theorists, the great Max Weber.

As any schoolboy knows, Max Weber was the “godfather of sociology” and the first scholar to identify and articulate the characteristics of “bureaucracy.”  Much of what he had to say on the subject has been analyzed, absorbed, and revered by his fellow sociologists, in addition to political scientists and organizational theorists, for the better part of a century now.  And for good reason.  Weber’s keen and astute observations helped explain what a bureaucracy is, what it does, why it is important in an advanced industrial (or post-industrial) society, and what risks it poses to democratic governance.  The overwhelming majority of Weber’s insights remain both highly relevant and powerfully accurate today.

That is not, however, to say that he was right about everything.  He wasn’t.  And while this is a truism – no one is right about everything – only lately have some of Weber’s miscalculations become obvious.  For decades, students of Weber’s work have believed certain things that now appear untrue.  Indeed, we ourselves have believed certain things that are now demonstrably untrue.  And as it turns out, some of these things matter a great deal to anyone who has an interest in understanding the contemporary administrative state and forecasting its future behavior.  Consider, for example, the following observations from Weber’s classic tome Economy and Society:

Bureaucracy inevitably accompanies modern mass democracy . . . Once it is fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy . . . The ruled, for their part, cannot dispense with or replace the bureaucratic apparatus of authority once it exists.  For this bureaucracy rests upon expert training, a functional specialization of work, and an attitude set for habitual and virtuoso-like mastery of single yet methodically integrated functions.  If the official stops working, or if his work is forcefully interrupted, chaos results, and it is difficult to improvise replacements from among the governed who are fit to master such chaos . . . More and more the material fate of the masses depends upon the steady and correct function of the increasingly bureaucratic organizations of private capitalism.  The idea of eliminating these organizations becomes more and more utopian . . .

The objective indispensability of the once-existing apparatus, with its peculiar, “impersonal” character, means that the mechanism . . . is easily made to work for anybody who knows how to gain control over it.  A rationally ordered system of officials continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the area; he merely needs to change the top officials.  This body of officials continues to operate because it is to the vital interest of everyone concerned, including above all the enemy.

Most of this is, of course, both brilliant and accurate to the point of indisputability.  And up until recently, we and most others considered ALL of it brilliant and accurate to the point of indisputability.  But conditions change, and when they do, what was once brilliant can suddenly appears foolish.  Heaven knows, we’ve had to live with that ourselves.  Weber’s observation that “the mechanism . . . is easily made to work for anybody who knows how to gain control over it,” sounds peculiar, almost laughable today.  No one knows how to gain control over the bureaucracy.  To do so is, frankly, impossible.

Now, to be fair to Weber, we are faulting him here for his inability to predict the future, which is ironic.  Much of Weber’s reputation as a genius lies in the fact that he, more or less, predicted the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, despite have died three years before the Beer Hall Putsch.  What Weber didn’t foresee, however – what no one could possibly have foreseen – is what the war to destroy the National Socialists would do to the rest of the West and specifically what it would do the administrative state.  David Brinkley gives us just a taste of this in his own classic, Washington Goes to War:

It was still possible in 1941 to walk through the White House gate and into the grounds without showing a pass or answering any questions, since the White House was not yet considered much different from any other public building in the city.  Until a few years before there had been no gates at all, and on summer days government employees had lounged on the White House lawns eating picnic lunches out of paper sacks . . . .

Six months into the war, there were so many new agencies, all known by their initials, nobody could keep them straight.  The OPC was the Office of Petroleum Coordination.  Its director was Harold Ickes, also the Secretary of the Interior.  At a press conference he was asked about a new OPC ruling and he said, testily, “I can’t speak for the OPC.”  There was a pause, stirrings of surprise and confusion among the reporters, until an aide whispered in Ickes’s ear that he was the director of the OPC.   “I’m all balled up on all these initials,” Ickes explained.  So were many others.  By now there were the WPB, OPA, WMC, BEW, NWLB, ODT, WSA, OCD, OEM and many others.  One office, issuing wartime regulations for plumbers, was the WPGSJSISIACWPB.

Between the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the rise of the Military-Industrial Complex, the Great Society and countless other periods of “innovation” in government, the administrative state has ballooned in size and scope to proportions that no one, not even Max Weber, could have imagined.  Today, the federal bureaucracy decides everything for Americans, from which relationships are acceptable in the state’s eyes to who gets to go potty where.  Government “administration” is, as we have noted countless times in these pages, not merely a rival to capital and labor, the traditional bases of power in the Western world, but also the most important and most dominant feature in contemporary civic life.

To be sure, there are some on the political Right who disagree with us, who think that Weber was right and that all one needs to do is to go about assessing and reworking the bureaucracy in order to achieve the political ends one wants.  In a pre-inauguration piece for Commentary, Tevi Troy, who served in a variety of positions in the George W. Bush administration, offered the incoming president some advice on managing the bureaucracy.  He concluded:

If a new political team is thoughtful and knows what it is doing, it can get a lot done.  As a former senior political head of administration at a cabinet department told me, “When you get in, you take some time, you get rid of the bad apples.”  This does not mean dismissing them, of course.  The Baxter case described above demonstrates the folly of that approach.  But there are tools wise administrators can use to elevate cooperative officials and move aside obstinate ones.  This does not entail making the decisions based on ideology or partisan affiliation.  It does mean looking at the willingness of the officials to do the legitimate tasks they are assigned to do.

If the Trump administration heeds these lessons, it can accomplish much in four or possibly eight years.  Perhaps not as much as promised in the heat of a campaign — few administrations can — but still a great deal.  But to do so requires coming to grips with what the career bureaucracy is, what is isn’t, and how an incoming administration can best deal with it.

Troy believes this for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, he has experience managing the bureaucracy.  As he says in the first paragraph of his piece, he “was the deputy director of a ‘parachute team’ for incoming president George W. Bush, and our job was to ‘secure the beachhead’ at the Department of Labor on the first day of the new administration.”  And that meant that he was he was in charge of finding and stopping the guy with fax machine, who faxed new regulatory language over to the Federal Register.  Once that was done, they could get started on their real work.

Troy also writes that the bureaucracy is hardly the ideological monolith that most people think it is.  Career civil servants may be more liberal than, say, career farmers, but that’s hardly a universal or an overwhelming distinction.  They’re just ordinary people who want to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.  He puts it this way:

As for the question of bias, which generally dominates Republican thinking on the question of career officials, it is true that career federal officials are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.  A 2015 poll found that 44 percent of federal employees were Democrats or Democratic leaning, as compared with 40 percent who were Republican or Republican leaning . . . . the numbers also suggest that while the preference exists, it is not necessarily overwhelming.

In my experience, this likelihood of Democratic lever-pulling does not, however, mean that most career officials bring their political predilections into the carrying out of their duties at work.

We don’t doubt that Troy is right.  Most bureaucrats are indeed just average Janes and Joes, people trying to earn a living, put food on their tables, and create a better life for their kids.  They’re not ideologues.  They’re not rampant statists trying to control everyone’s lives.  They’re just people.  And they can be managed by administrations of various ideological bents.

But ask yourself this:  did the Bush administration make any headway against the administrative state?  Obviously, he was less aggressive about using “the government” to affect people’s lives than were his predecessor and his successor.  He didn’t tell the Little Sisters of the Poor that they had to buy birth control.  He didn’t tell public school administrators in Nebraska that they should let boys pee in the girls’ bathroom.  He didn’t try to deprive male college students of their right to due process in sexual assault cases.  But did he shrink the size of government?  Did he cut regulation?  Did he normalize the influence of government’s interference in people’s lives?  Or did he just “manage” the bureaucrats effectively?  Did he merely slow the speed of the Leviathan’s growth?

Sadly, these are rhetorical questions.  You know, we know, and Tevi Troy knows the answers to them.  Bush didn’t put a dent in the administrative state.  He didn’t even try.  He – and Troy and countless others – may have “managed” the bureaucrats, but no one, not even the sainted Ronald Reagan, has “controlled” the bureaucracy.  We’ll say it again:  the bureaucracy is simply UNcontrollable.

The problem here, we think, is that Tevi Troy is talking about something entirely different from what we are talking about – and what Weber had in mind.  Troy is talking about “getting along” with bureaucrats, about managing the “civil service,” which is comprised of ordinary people, most good, some bad, a few Republicans here, a handful of Democrats there.

We – and Weber – are talking about something else entirely.  We’re talking about the bureaucracy, which not made up of individual people, but which is a collective and which “behaves” as an entity in and of itself.

If you want to understand American politics today; if you want to know why the administrative state is so powerful; if you want to begin to grasp the risk here to democratic (or republican) politics, then you have to look at the organizational type as a whole and understand its characteristics, which defy the logic of interpersonal decency detailed by Troy.

The first thing to remember is that the bureaucracy is, as Weber said, impersonal.  This means that the people of whom the bureaucracy is comprised are largely irrelevant; their personal beliefs and behavior have no noticeable effect on the bureaucracy’s overall collective behavior.  Individual civil servants may be right-leaning, left-leaning, in-the-middle, whatever, but it doesn’t matter.  The written rules and the standardized behavior make their individual preferences largely irrelevant.  Weber put it as follows:

From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings.   It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability.  It thus makes possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for the heads of the organization and for those acting in relation to it.   It is finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the scope of its operations and is formally capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks.

What this means in practice, then, is that a bureaucracy adheres to the specific principle of detachment.  Both the bureaucracy and individual bureaucrats remain personally indifferent to their tasks and their clients.

When fully developed, bureaucracy stands . . . under the principle of sine ira ac studio (without scorn and bias).  Its specific nature which is welcomed by capitalism develops the more perfectly the more bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.  This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special virtue.

As we have noted before, in the psychological literature, this is referred to as “mechanistic” dehumanization.  Mechanistic dehumanization – like its cousin, “animalistic” dehumanization – is a process by which human characteristics are denied to a specific subset of people.  In this case, the members of the target population are likened to machines, to automatons; they are denied their basic humanity, but in a way that makes them more efficient, more calculating, less emotional than normal humans.

Without getting too far off into the weeds, we’ll point out that this is precisely what the political Left has striven for, almost since its inception:  an impersonal government apparatus that operates on scientific and mechanistic principles to achieve “efficient” administration.  From Marx and especially Engels with their claims of “scientific socialism,” to Comte’s Positivism and his belief in the possibility of scientifically ordering the affairs of man, the Left and its intellectual agents have long subscribed to the fantastical notion that science and scientific principles could not only control the natural environment but the political environment as well.

In the end, what the Left built, both in Europe and America, was precisely what it wanted, a bureaucratic machine, although one that delivered less than ideal results.  Mechanistic efficiency was achieved, never mind the price.

Because it was beyond the scope of his work as an observer of bureaucracy, Weber did not comment on that price or make normative arguments about it.  He noted merely the efficiency involved in “dehumanization.”

One observer who did comment on the costs of mechanistic dehumanization, however, was Hannah Arendt, who, like Weber, took an interest in how the modern state achieves administrative efficiency.  In much of her later work, Arendt focused intently on mechanistic dehumanization, detailing the unspeakable dangers that lurk in the bureaucratic apparatus.  In her Reflections on Violence, for example, Arendt attempted to explain the effect of bureaucratization on government and the harm that flows from it.  She wrote:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man — of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.  Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done . . . .

The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence.  In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

In her far better known and far more controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt addressed the ultimate end of the mechanistic dehumanization created by the adoption of a belief in the “scientific” – and therefore unerring – nature of bureaucratic administration.  Bureaucrats become cogs in the machine and thus do what cogs do, that is follow their directives even, in many cases, if those directives are utterly depraved.  This, Arendt famously wrote, is the “banality of evil.”  It is not monsters and devils who carry out monstrous and devilish acts, but mere functionaries.  To wit:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.  From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together . . . .

Of course it is important to the political and social sciences that the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

By way of disclaimer, we should note here that her characterization of Eichmann is, in many ways, one of Arendt’s “mistakes.”  We’re hardly experts on Arendt, but we agree that a strong case can be made that she was both too hard on the German Jews and too soft on functionaries like Eichmann.  Nevertheless, she makes an important point.  Her argument that mechanistic dehumanization permits, even compels, bureaucratic functionaries to give themselves over to the organization and to “follow orders,” even when those orders are suspect is powerful and significant.

The only question we are left with in all of this is “whose orders are the bureaucracy and its mechanistically dehumanized cogs following?”  In light of recent evidence, we’d say that the answer to that is “the State’s.”  In his new book, Patriotism is Not Enough, released TODAY, the conservative intellectual Steven Hayward, argues that “bureaucratic government is the partisan instrument of the Democratic Party” and that this is “the most obvious, yet least remarked upon, trait of our time.”  We’re not entirely sure that we agree.  The Democrats may indeed try to use the bureaucracy to advance their own ends, but the bureaucracy’s ends are not necessarily dictated by partisan political forces.  The bureaucracy has its own ends, which entail the preservation and the expanse of its purview, of the permanent government, the state.  It just so happens that the Democrats’ ends, which are also statist, tend to correspond well to the bureaucracy’s.

Way back in 1971, the late, great William Niskanen demonstrated with a great degree of confidence that bureaucracies can and do have their own agendas, independent of the agendas of elected officials.  Niskanen’s “budget-maximizing bureaucracy” pursues its own ends and seeks its own veneration, unrelated to those of the polity at large.  The bureaucracy itself – the permanent state – is what matters in calculations made by “rational” bureaucratic actors.

Today, we are seeing much the same thing, only in terms of power and prerogatives, rather than pure budgetary concerns.

As you well know, last week, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was pushed out of the administration after several stories published by the New York Times and the Washington Post implied that he had engaged in wrongdoing.  All of the stories cited information leaked to the papers by anonymous intelligence officials.  This information was, without question, leaked in contravention of the law.

In the days since Flynn’s resignation, countless stories have been written about the illegality of the actions taken by the intelligence officials, about the war that the nation’s intelligence apparatus has declared against President Trump, or about the mysterious “deep state” and its efforts to undermine a president to whom it is antagonistic.  This is all well and good, we suppose, and we ourselves wrote a piece a year-and-a-half ago about “deep state” and its presupposition of its own righteousness (see here).

Still, we think that if you look beyond merely the Flynn affair, you’ll see that this isn’t about the “deep state” so much as the plain ol’ “state.”  Elsewhere last week, we learned that the intelligence apparatus is refusing to brief the President on sensitive information, ostensibly because it doesn’t trust him or his confidants.  We learned that that career civil servants at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been lobbying members of the Senate to vote against Trump’s nominee Scott Pruitt.  We learned – from the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry – that bureaucrats at the Pentagon are openly resisting and trying to sabotage Trump’s efforts to address the military’s “readiness problem.”  We learned that employees at the VA are allowed to spend, in some cases, up to 100% of their time conducting union organization business.  We learned that some members and some stations of the U.S. Border Patrol are directly and purposefully disobeying presidential directives and still operating under Obama-era rules.  And the list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

The simple fact of the matter is that this is not the “deep state,” or at least not the deep state alone.  The entire STATE is in revolt against Donald Trump and his plans to reform and reduce the administrative apparatus.

How will this end?  Well, we expect that most of it, the high-profile business about disobeying the president will be stopped.  The guys like Tevi Troy will go in and move the right people out of the wrong jobs and put an end to the overt insubordination.  In time, Trump – like Bush and Bush and Reagan before him – will effectively “manage” the bureaucracy.  He’ll get the cogs pushing in the right direction – as long, that is, as he doesn’t try to get them to push against the state, against the interests they collectively cannot forsake.

Early this month, as the teachers’ unions were vigorously protesting the nomination of Betsy DeVos to run the Education Department, National Review’s Kevin Williamson penned a piece asking what, exactly, the Democratic Party is and what it stands for.  He came to this conclusion:

The Democratic party in reality is the cartoon version of the Republican party stood on its head, with cold-eyed self-serving economic interests using the so-called social issues to stir up the rubes while they go about seeing to their own paydays and pensions.

The economic interests attached to the Democratic party are fairly easy to identify: people who work for government at all levels.  You may come across the occasional Ron Swanson in the wild, but when it comes to the teachers’ unions — which are the biggest spender in U.S. politics — or the AFSCME gang or the vast majority of people receiving a taxpayer-funded paycheck, the politics of the public sector is almost exclusively Democratic.  And what they care about isn’t social justice or inequality or diversity or peace or whether little Johnny can use the ladies’ room if his heart tells him to — they care about getting paid.

Williamson – who is one of the keenest political writers working today – is right, but only half right.  On an individual level, government employees care about their jobs, about maintaining their paychecks and their pensions.  If they didn’t care, they’d be nuts.  On the collective level, however, the problem is much larger and much more difficult to handle.  Bureaucrats care about their own individual well-being, and the bureaucracy, as a collective, cares about its well-being, about its power, about its prestige, about its ability to withstand the machinations of mere elected interlopers.

We’re not entirely sure that Donald Trump understands this.  Of course, we can’t blame him for that.  Turns out that Max Weber, the preeminent expert on the subject, didn’t understand it either.  The bureaucracy is far more powerful than the bureaucrats who run it.  Its collective mechanistic dehumanization is among the most powerful forces man has ever known.  It will not surrender its power willingly.  In the end, it will not die by fire or water.  It will starve us and it.  Or it will strangle us both.  In either case, the administrative state will not go gentle into that good night.  And it will not be “managed” into submission.

Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.