No institution is neutral, and nobody is free. Everyone and everything serves something. Everybody and everything has a “telos.”
What purpose does the American administrative state (the “bureaucracy”) serve?
On the face, the thing is neutral. Employees have a type of tenure (“civil service protections”). Proceedings are largely public, and rules are set in advance. There are rules against bribery and other forms of self-dealing. Isn’t this all we want?
Well, no. The majority of federal workers are Democrats, and the vast majority of money from federal worker unions goes to Democrats. And this actually hides the real data, since (and I know this from experience) the type of “Republican” you get in federal service is typefied by the 2016 Republican primary in Washington, D.C. Marco Rubio won that with 37.3% of the GOP voters in the District. Second place was Trump, right? Wrong. Second place was John Kasich with 35.5% of the vote.
As a result, the federal government has an obvious supermajority of what Chris Arnade has called “front row” individuals, at least in policymaking positions (office aides and janitors are more diverse).
And when you mix “neutral” rules with a stacked decisionmaking group, the latter wins out. This was the complaint about all-White southern juries—rules of evidence still applied. Burdens of proof were the same. But the outcomes were predictable in ways the critics didn’t like.
One can give a potentially infinite number of concrete ways that substance beats form every time. Biased individuals can prioritize work they truly think is more important, rather than something else. These individuals can apply “math” differently: we see this in the cost-benefit analyses related to the social cost of carbon, for example. These individuals can weight expertise differently, treating a Harvard Ph.D with no experience as more credible than a state engineer who has worked on a particular issue.
And none of this can be solved with “rules.” Our job, in a democratic system and in a political movement, is to be “mindful.” We need to be politically conscious at all times. We don’t set up a Henry Ford process (such as better hearing procedures, or such as airing out conflicts of interest) and then leave the machine to run. No, we need to pay attention at all times, holistically.
Institutions, and the federal government in particular, are symphonic, and holistic. Any given decision, any given rule is kaleidoscopic in that it relates back to, and is only intelligible in the context of, the whole.
So as we move forward, be skeptical of anyone (no matter how smart or pedigreed!) who recommends “one simple trick” to reform government, or any institution. Do you have one simple trick to reform your own life? No? Then why do you think it would work on a bigger scale?