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.
The view you articulate shouldn't be controversial among those who believe in constitutional formalism and originalism. The bureaucratic, juridicial elites - risk-averse, pedigree- and position-oriented - were never held accountable for their lack of a material education. The letters of the American founders showed that their main concern motivating both independence from Britain and the unification of the colonies was the special dangers that resulted from "ministerial" governance. When the parliament uses its power to establish ministers who hold the power of a monarch but were dependent upon the parliament (versus the electorate) for such power, these ministers will have every incentive (including corruption) to ensure the election of parliament members who abdicate legislative responsibility through ministerial prerogative. Thus Sir Francis Bernard, 1st Baronet, and Thomas Hutchinson were both provincial governors who helped empower the British Board of Trade and the ministerial Lords of Trade (subsequently called "Commissioners") who were responsible for enforcing the Navigation Acts and asserted authority over all colonial trading. Thus the core objection of the Founders were parliamentary abdication through executive ministers who exercised legislative prerogative but were not subject to election. This is why so-called unitary executive partisans who seek control over ministerial offices (CFPB, FTC, SEC) are actually empowering congressional abdication and dilution of presidential power. The first sin was believing that the commerce clause meant that Congress could regulate all national business versus the view that Congress could not regulate any interstate business (absence of "with") other than trade through navigable waters that crossed state lines (use of "among the several"). Why would you need a clause governing laws "among the several states" when the Supremacy Clause should permit federal business rules to preempt such resource use cartels? Because Article VI, says "laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." Thus Congress, not the several states, sets rules regarding the use of interstate navigable waters for trade ("commerce") among the several states. No states can conspire against other states to monopolize a navigable water that crosses state borders because that water belongs to the United States. Such water is "among" the states in the sense that no state has a distinct power over the water (hence the absence of the word "between" or "with"). The second sin is believing that Congress's establishing ministers to regulate business within the United States means the creation of executive rather than legislative officers. As executive officers, SEC commissioners rely on Title 5 (APA, FOIA, Inspectors General) and congressional oversight to make presidential supervision and control a farce. But as legislative officers, the president can prevent such agencies from having any law enforcement prerogative, can refuse to appoint commissioners, and can view his law enforcement power as immune and separate from what are legislative committees as a matter of constitutional law. The idea of a president subject to appointing ministers who nevertheless are supervised and controlled by Congress is precisely what the Founders rebelled against.