When Pencil Pushers Attack

by Fred Bauer
The big-government model depends on having scrupulously honest bureaucrats. How’s that working out?

As numerous journalists will attest, the warm feelings of many in the media for the Obama White House have often gone unreciprocated. In fact, the White House tends to have a siege mentality in its dealings with the media. Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen sketched out in February the lengths the administration has gone to in order to limit traditional media’s access and the president’s exposure to hard-hitting journalistic questions. Fierce pushback and outright attacks by the administration and its allies are directed at any media voice who has the temerity to criticize the White House. Just ask Bob Woodward.

This hostility to critique serves as a backdrop to the twin scandals of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s secret tracking of journalists’ phone calls. An administration in permanent campaign mode and ready to unleash the politics of personal destruction at a moment’s notice now faces a firestorm of questions about the use and abuse of federal power.

There are obviously political implications for these scandals. But we should also take a step back and think of their broader implications for the president’s political and philosophical agendas.

Contemporary progressivism depends upon faith in bureaucracy: to collect data, to manage daily affairs on the local and national levels, and to serve as an impartial arbiter of fairness. Many of the major initiatives of the Obama presidency — from Obamacare to his expansion of executive authority to comprehensive immigration reform — demand this bureaucratic faith.

So every scandal that reveals a bureaucracy’s capacity for corruption deals a methodological wound to this centralizing enterprise. While the president might deride those who fear the subversion of a free republic into a less-than-free state, these sorts of scandals — whatever their outcomes — reveal that such fears are hardly misplaced. After all, we now know that federal tax-collection authorities systematically targeted opponents of the reigning ideology. We now know that federal agents could blithely monitor the phone calls of journalists. Those are not the figments of tea-party paranoia; as far as we can tell, they are facts.

The way it looks at the moment, there are two possible impulses behind these scandals: malice or incompetence. Neither one bears good tidings for bureaucratic progressivism. Obviously, the notion that high-level political actors would use the mechanisms of a bureaucratic empire to target their political enemies would be a very unpleasant idea. Right now, there is no evidence that such high-level actors did abuse their power in this way; it is possible that only a few rogue individuals abused or misused their authority. Media reports seem to indicate that the IRS scandal, at least, involves complicated technicalities and managerial disputes.

But incompetence is not exactly a winning defense for the case of centralized bureaucracies. The lack of approval, and the extent of the abuses, would show a bureaucracy out of control, with a broken chain of command and administrative rules. If the right hand truly does not know what the left hand does — if the brain of authority does not know what its administrative limbs do — how can we place blind faith in any supreme bureaucracy?

The rise of Reaganite conservatism is connected to a corresponding rise in skepticism about big institutions. As David Frum chronicled in How We Got Here, the America of the 1970s witnessed a traumatic crisis of confidence in centralized bureaucracies, from the U.S. military to large corporations to the federal government. This crisis helped increase the public’s appetite for decentralized solutions.

There is yet no evidence that these scandals will reach the magnitude of Watergate in terms of their public response or in terms of direct presidential involvement, but they do remind us that we should not wholly turn our minds and our consciences over to large, centralized bureaucracies. Traditional conservatism is not anarchism; there is a place for bureaucracies — even complicated ones. And a key federal role is an administrative one, within limits. But a rigorous interrogation of and skepticism about this bureaucratic power is one way of keeping it both legitimate and within its proper bounds. So a rigorous investigation should go forward, and we should keep in mind the lessons of this contretemps for the tactics and the philosophy of big bureaucracy.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.

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