By Emmett McGroarty, IHE Director of Research and Planning

With the tragedies and horrors of the pandemic, we see signs of inspiration. We see inspiration in the tireless response of medical personnel. We see it in all those who reach out to help others, both neighbors and strangers. We see it in schoolteachers and administrators, from first grade through graduate school, who strive to continue teaching and keep their communities together. We see it in the government workers and politicians who are trying their best to pull the country through the crisis. We see it in the truckers and other workers in the supply chain who are working under difficult circumstances to ensure that people have necessities. We also see signs of inspiration in the public’s willingness to examine and question the contours of government decisions.

Although not as obvious, the last of these is crucial to civil society, and increasingly so. It is crucial because, for well over 100 years, progressive ideology has steadily re-shaped American government and, in so doing, marginalized the influence and participation of the people. In The Science of Administration, his 1887 essay in Political Science Quarterly, Woodrow Wilson laid out the argument for this change: the administration of government should be centralized and placed in the hands of bureaucrats to develop expertise in their areas, study the data and science, and craft reasonable plans for moving forward.

To do this, though, the bureaucrat would have to gain a measure of independence from political control. As Wilson argued: “Administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.” The rationale is that the bureaucrat — having figured out what to do — should not be slowed down or otherwise thwarted by the Constitution’s separation of powers, system of dual sovereigns, and ultimately by accountability to the people. In Wilson’s judgment, “[t]he people, who are sovereign . . . are selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.”

Over the years, as this ideology has taken hold, the bureaucracy has grown immensely in both state and federal government. Some of this growth concerns new fields of activity, like NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration. Some of it is due to clear oversteps of federal activity, like its increasing role in education. Regardless, this bureaucratic expansion calls for several considerations:

  • Expertise of a purely bureaucratic and truly scientific nature, is invaluable. Nevertheless, bureaucratic legitimacy is impaired where the Constitutional structure is compromised — especially the separation of powers and the denigration of the unitary executive (insulating certain agencies and offices from presidential control). When this happens, accountability to citizens diminishes, and they rightly become alienated.
  • Lacking accountability to the people, bureaucrats are not positioned to weigh competing interests and policies. With COVID-19, for example, they lack both the standing in the eyes of the people and the necessary knowledge to weigh the harms and benefits of a complete lockdown versus less severe measures.
  • Likewise, political leadership is critical to ensuring that government, in its zeal, does not trample over individual rights.
  • Political leadership is always necessary to evaluate the validity of the bureaucrats’ methodologies and conclusions, the parameters of their knowledge, and the certainty of their opinions (for example, through consultation with other experts).

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that government’s centralization of local matters “is fit only to enervate the people who submit to it.” Moreover, when that centralization is put in the same hands as the centralized government responsible for national matters (e.g., foreign affairs), it creates an “immense force” that “habituates men to make complete and continual abstraction from their wills.” Amidst the tragedy and horror of COVID-19, the spirit of the American people remains, perhaps invigorated, to seek the truth of what is known and unknown and to rightfully, and peacefully, demand that their voices be heard in steering the ships of state.

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