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Most of us take for granted that much of the government’s business is carried out by bureaucrats and that many of the laws that impinge upon our economic and our social lives are created and enforced not by Congress and the courts but by administrative agencies. For nearly a century, our domestic policy disagreements — over federal spending, health care, and the social safety net — have taken place against the backdrop of a government whose functions are increasingly bureaucratic, rather than political. Even the debate over government’s size, which has characterized our politics for so long, takes for granted the existence, if not the necessity, of the administrative state. 

Of course, a certain amount of delegation has always been necessary for the executive to carry out the laws passed by Congress. But this modern style of governance — in which a centralized, rational bureaucracy, staffed by unelected and purportedly apolitical officials, is empowered by Congress to formulate rules and regulations — is a creature of more recent times. Scholars locate its emergence at different points in history: the creation of the civil service in the late 19th century; the rise of progressivism in early 20th-century America; the New Deal; the Great Society. 

According to John Marini, however, we have to go all the way back to 19th-century Prussia to understand the origins of the administrative state. Marini, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno, is the guest on the sixth and final episode of our podcast “The Future of the Administrative State.” He argues that while the terms “bureaucracy” and “administrative state” would emerge much later, the philosophical seeds of bureaucratic governance were sown in the writings of 19th-century German thinkers, such as G.W.F. Hegel, who articulated a political vision that would become essential to American politics nearly a century later. 

According to these thinkers, politics is not grounded in human nature (as the ancients supposed) or natural rights (as America’s founders maintained) but in society itself, which progresses and changes over time. Moreover, such progress is understood to be rational, as resulting in the “cultivation of knowledge.” This picture of government is not of a “social compact,” like a constitution, intended to protect natural rights, but an organic and rational whole — the State — which becomes the “vehicle for the administration of progress.” Hence “more and more of the tasks of human society have to be handed over to those who have knowledge.” The end result: the push and pull of ordinary representative politics is superseded by centralized “rational rule” by a cognitive elite — what would later be termed the administrative state.

Marini sees these philosophical ideas as anticipating the modern view that politically neutral subject-matter experts should be deputized to effectuate progressive policies. This is no coincidence, according to Marini. These ideas, “imbibed” by Americans such as Woodrow Wilson and other leading academics, came to influence the 20th-century reform efforts of American Progressivism. Beyond the specifics of those reforms, this progressive turn had at least three important consequences for American politics in the 20th century.

First is the eclipse of Congress as the first branch of government. Congress, though initially resistant, ultimately ceded its legislative power to the executive and, specifically, administrative agencies. At this point, congressmen began to act more like “co-administrators in various parts of the [administrative] apparatus” than genuine representatives. Lost thereby was “the ability of Congress to act as a deliberative body — or as a body at all.”

Second is the decline of American political parties. As bureaucracy became the primary vehicle for enacting policies preferred by “organized interests,” the two parties ceased to represent the people, “accommodate[ing]…themselves” instead “to the administrative state.” Members of Congress have grown accustomed to this state of affairs, as “it gives them status and it gives them power over policy arenas without any responsibility or accountability.” We see this today, Marini thinks, in the Obamacare repeal debacle, where politicians are “happy to vote” for repeal when they know their vote is “meaningless” but ultimately unwilling to do what their constituents want when it counts.

Third is the erosion of civil society — of those mediating institutions that exist between the public and private spheres. Historically, institutions like the family and religious organizations were responsible for performing many of the tasks now controlled by the administrative state. But “over the course of much of the 20th century,” and “accelerating after the 60s,” many of those “civil associations…were essentially outlawed or undermined.” Thus the administrative state continues to expand to fill the void left by a shrinking civil society. 

According to Marini, Trump alone among last year’s presidential candidates understood this state of affairs, even if only instinctively. His campaign exploited the weakness of our political parties to appeal to a citizenry that has grown dissatisfied with Congress and frustrated by the power of administrative agencies and the attendant special interests. The Republican Party establishment meanwhile, was not only unwilling to endorse Trump but even to concede that he had grasped a genuine political problem. 

Will Trump succeed in rebuilding the democratic politics Marini believes has been dismantled by the rise of the administrative state? He is not especially optimistic, in part because even Trump’s own party has proved reluctant to abandon the status quo, despite the outcome of last year’s election. More fundamentally, Marini points out, to offer a viable alternative to the administrative state, we must not only reinvigorate our constitutional system — with its separation of powers — but also revitalize the democratic culture and therewith the civil society needed to sustain it. “You have to really begin the process of reestablishing a ground of authority that is different than rational authority” — different from Hegel’s centralized “rational rule” — and “that’s very hard to do when you’ve destroyed the civil associations that were established on the older authority.”

Still, Marini thinks, Trump’s rise has made it “increasingly clear” that “if we want political rule in America…the citizens are going to have to reestablish the ground of their citizenship by paying attention to politics,” by “being vigilant.” And whether Trump “succeeds or not,” Marini does not think “you can put a lid on the movement and the awareness that he’s created in the electorate about the administrative state.”

M. Anthony Mills is editor of RealClearPolicy.

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