A Theory of the State
Public administration on the Right, some esoteric Burnhamposting
I have occasion to read a lot of drafts and massage policy ideas on the Right, and without stealing anyone’s thunder, I just want to give an overview on management technology in general, and how it is viewed on the Right.
Perhaps I’ll do a bibliography at some point, Don Devine, James Burnham, the Hoover Commission all come to mind, as do the various Supreme Court opinions on administrative law. Public admin textbooks hit this point as well— private management texts as well. “Theory X” and “Theory Y” and the like.
But I practice what I preach—no citations, just the ideas.
What is the right-wing theory of management? (And who is leading the charge here?)
Candidate Trump in 2016 ran on “draining the swamp.” And we moved the Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, Colorado as much as an ideological thing as anything else. GOP Inc. candidates like Mitt Romney constantly talk about bringing private sector management to the public sector. What is all of this about?
To hear the libertarian / neoliberal side speak, one might think there is an unmoored science of management, a right and wrong way applicable to all situations. In any circumstance, there are ways of aligning incentives so that the machine will work well. Get the structure right, and the outputs will be ordered towards the good. Garbage in, gold out. This is deeply rooted in American ideology about our “once and for all time” Founding. “The genius of the Framers” brought us a system of checks and balances in a killer app that has solved the problem of government. On this view, if there is a problem with public administration, it is one of technik, a valueless concept. Get the technik right, get government right, for all men.
This kind of thinking is, I think, deeply flawed, and it has serious downstream consequences. The unique feature of public administration, on this view, is that certain incentives are permanently incapable of being aligned—for example, budget pressure is nonexistent because the public fisc is unlimited. Thus, the only solution to fixing certain bureaucracies is to “just cut the budget.” Let’s get rid of the Department of Education! Let’s get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development! Etc. It also has the false positive dilemma of looking at major successes as successes of human achievement or technik, rather than serendipity—”that particular emergency response went well, and we need to emulate it.” Or “we haven’t had a major air accident or terrorist attack in X years.”
A second way of thinking is interest group politics from the right, speaking of patronage or giveaways. At root this is a deeply dialectical view—there are “sides” who negotiate, and problems in administration are caused by epistemic factors. I generally subscribed to this view nowadays, not because it is “correct,” but because our current system does include a large tumor, which is perhaps even conscious of itself, and the vital energy and money being placed into the system is willfully ignorant of this. So there are “sides” but there aren’t always sides.
On this view, public administration isn’t about “correct” or “incorrect” answers, but settled or unsettled judgments. The system is designed to capture democratic inputs and spit out some negotiated settlement. A “failure” is rarely, if ever, a true failure, and if you view it as a failure, that’s because you don’t like the substantive outcome, not that there is a technical problem to fix. On this view, there is no science to apply—if a rule promulgated by an agency is drafted in the dead of night, or a bill is passed without Congresspersons knowing what is in the bill, that’s not necessarily bad. It just means “we” have delegated to these agents these functions.
One can add an ideological gloss here—perhaps there is a new managerial class—the Faucis of the world—who are increasingly independent from democratic input. They credential themselves. They hire themselves. They set their own standards and manage themselves. And we are happy to have them run our government, because Congresspersons would have no other idea what to do, and because these managers generally provide for our material wellbeing. Is there a major financial crisis? They will cut off a head or two, help smooth things over, and most importantly give the whole system an appearance of competence.
So if one thinks the system isn’t serving the common good, and takes this dialectical approach, what are some options?
(1) Break the vicious cycle, or the revolving door. Reset credentialling (no judicial noms from Harvard / Yale / Stanford, mandate geographic diversity in agency hiring, move agencies to the hinterlands). Prevent profiteering. Ban ex parte contacts. Etc. Increase opportunity for democratic inputs. Swap one powerful beneficiary of the bureaucracy for another, in a showy fashion (leverage Microsoft to ban Google from contracts, leverage Oracle to go after others on antitrust, etc.), then swing back, like a kid trying to get a boat to tip.
(2) Attack the appearance of competence. Attack expertise as such. Expose "neutral algorithms” as non-neutral.
(3) Opportunistically make nonpublic data public.
(4) Make a show of exercising sovereign authority in low-intensity situations where the outcome is already accepted. Habituate technocrats to whimsy.
These are just some broad thoughts, and I welcome comments.