The New Despotism of Bureaucracy
While the era of big government rages back, the tyranny of administration is just getting under way.


The United States has been moving down this path in fits and starts for some time, from the Progressive Era reforms through the New Deal’s interventions in the economy. But the real shift and expansion occurred more recently, under the Great Society and its progeny. The expansion of regulatory activities on a society-wide scale in the 1960s and 1970s led to vast new centralizing authority in the federal government, such that today the primary function of government is to regulate. The modern Congress is a supervisory body exercising oversight of the true lawmakers — administrative policymakers.

It is this model, what William Schambra calls “the policy approach,” that Americans are trapped in today. Everything — from financial restructuring to environmental regulation to immigration reform — must be dealt with comprehensively, meaning centrally and uniformly, based on the best science rather than politics and ideology.

The “health-care reform” legislation just enacted is the perfect example. Massive regulatory authority over one-sixth of the American economy, not to mention over most health-care decisionmaking, will be transferred to a collection of more than 100 federal agencies, bureaus, and commissions, along with new federal programs and an unprecedented delegation of power to the now-über-czar Secretary of Health and Human Services. Little or nothing will be allowed outside the new regulatory scheme — no alternative state programs, no individuals or businesses that choose not to participate, no truly private market alternatives.

If Obamacare becomes settled law, and its programs are fixed in place, it will go far in cementing the United States as a post-constitutional administrative state.

In assuming more and more tasks in more and more areas beyond its constitutionally prescribed responsibilities, modern government has done great damage to American self-rule. The extended reach of the state — fueled by its imperative to impose neutrality on the public square — continues to push traditional social institutions into the shadows of public life, undermining the moral fabric of America’s culture and civil society.

As a people, we have fallen into the habit of expecting government to solve not just social problems but personal ones, removing all risk from life and providing for all our needs and pleasures. It is commonplace now for individuals to look to government to relieve their most ordinary concerns, support their basic endeavors, and compensate them for the simplest injuries they suffer in daily affairs. All these demands are considered to be rights, and the list is ever-expanding.

By feeding the entitlement mentality rather than promoting self-reliance and independence, administrative government encourages a slavish character incompatible with republicanism. Once self-governing citizens are degrading themselves slowly into passive subjects of an impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state, and once citizens have given up liberty for comfortable security and the responsibility of self-government for the ease of government-as-parent, democratic government can become a type of soft despotism — which is less coercive in its methods and more benign in its concerns than hard despotism, but perhaps more despotic for this very reason.