Trust Us. We’re Experts.

Trust Us. We’re Experts.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

One of the tenets of the Progressive Movement—the progenitor of the New Deal—was that technical “experts” are better equipped to solve social problems and market failures than elected officials (or ordinary citizens, acting on their own). Hence, the advent over a century ago of regulatory agencies, charged with implementing vague laws that confer sweeping powers upon unelected bureaucrats exercising nearly-unbridled discretion. “Administration” by elites informed by science was heralded as an improvement over—even a substitute for–the outdated framework of representative self-government. The Interstate Commerce Commission (1887), the Food and Drug Administration (1906), and the Federal Trade Commission (1914) eventually begat the alphabet soup of federal agencies created during and after the New Deal that comprise the modern administrative state. Unaccountable government bureaucrats now wield extraordinary power, including the promulgation of a bewildering array of administrative regulations that dwarfs Congress’s lawmaking in volume and complexity.

Another Progressive tenet—famously advanced by President Woodrow Wilson–is that the U.S. Constitution is an obsolete impediment to the administrative state. In particular, Progressives regarded the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and limitations on Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, as antiquated features needing to be revised or ignored. Wilson’s sentiments ultimately carried the day, not by constitutional amendment, but through a gradual process of acquiescence and dereliction. Congress delegated considerable lawmaking power to executive branch agencies (such as the EPA, SEC, FCC, ad infinitum); the Supreme Court unleashed the commerce clause and then abdicated judicial review over many agency decisions; and the de facto fourth branch of government—the bureaucracy—often answers to no one, not even the President nominally overseeing the executive branch in which the agencies reside.

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