Readings — From the March 2015 issue

In Regulation Nation

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At least the right has a critique of bureaucracy. Its origins may be found in the nineteenth century, when liberal thinkers argued that Western civilization was undergoing a gradual, uneven, but inevitable transformation from the rule of warrior-elites to a society of liberty, equality, and enlightened commercial self-interest. In the wake of the French Revolution, absolutist states were giving way to markets, religious faith to scientific understanding, and fixed orders and noble ranks to free contracts between individuals.

The right-wing argument goes one step further. Ludwig von Mises, the exiled Austrian aristocrat and economic theorist who was its greatest twentieth-century exponent, argued in his 1944 book, Bureaucracy, that systems of government administration could never organize information with anything like the efficiency of impersonal market-pricing mechanisms, and that the administrators of social programs would end up destroying the political basis of democracy by forming powerful blocs against elected officials. Even well-meaning bureaucrats would do more harm than good.

The idea that the market is somehow opposed to and independent of government has been used at least since the nineteenth century to justify laissez-faire economic policies, but such policies never actually have the effect of lessening the role of government. In late-nineteenth-century England, for instance, an increasingly liberal society did not lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy but the opposite: an endlessly mushrooming array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries, and police officials — the very people who made possible the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals. It turned out that maintaining a free-market economy required considerably more paperwork than a Louis XIV–style absolutist monarchy. The same effect could be seen in America during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, or in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, where, from 1994 to 2002, the number of civil servants jumped by some quarter million.

Indeed, this paradox can be observed so regularly that I think we are justified in treating it as a general sociological principle. Let’s call it the Iron Law of Liberalism: Any market reform or government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will ultimately increase the number of regulations and bureaucrats, as well as the amount of paperwork, that the government employs. Emile Durkheim was already observing this tendency at the turn of the twentieth century, and fifty years later even right-wing critics like F. A. Hayek were willing to admit that markets don’t really regulate themselves: they require an army of administrators to keep them going.

Still, conservative populists recognized that making a target of bureaucrats was almost always effective, whatever the reality. Hence the 1968 presidential campaign of Alabama governor George Wallace, in which he continually maligned “pointy-headed bureaucrats” living off the taxes of hardworking citizens. He was one of the first politicians to create a national platform for this argument, which was adopted a generation later across the political spectrum. Working-class Americans now generally believe government to comprise two sorts of people: “politicians,” who are blustering crooks and liars but can at least occasionally be voted out of office, and “bureaucrats,” who are condescending elitists and almost impossible to uproot. The right-wing argument tends to assume a kind of tacit alliance between a parasitic poor (in America usually pictured in overtly racist terms) and equally parasitic self-righteous officials who subsidize the poor using other people’s money. Even the mainstream left now offers little more than a watered-down version of this language. Bill Clinton, for instance, spent so much of his career bashing civil servants that after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, he felt he had to remind Americans that public servants were human beings, too.

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October 2019


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