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


It was a new science of politics that offered the promise of technocracy. The French philosophes and utopians — deeply enamored of the endless promise of reason and modern science — saw the possibility of its ever-growing application to all aspects of the human condition. Just as science brought technological changes and new methods of study to the physical world, so it would bring great change and continuous improvement to society and man.

It was the late-19th-century Progressives who took this argument, combined it with ideas from German idealism and historicism, and Americanized it, seeking to replace U.S. constitutional politics with an administrative science over things.  

This view of scientific rationalism questioned the very idea of self-governing citizenship: Liberty is no longer a condition consistent with human nature and the exercise of God-given natural rights, but an evolving concept to be socially constructed. Government is liberated from its limitations to become a dynamic and evolving rational state, constantly expanding and changing to achieve Progress.

In the administrative view, everything is socialized under the jurisdiction of the state, subject to be regulated, distributed, denied, or taken away in the name of social justice.

The term “bureaucracy” comes from the French for desk, and the Greek for rule. The word was originally satirical, but for the Progressive, the rule of clerks is a noble endeavor — they are the true “agents of democracy,” as Herbert Croly liked to say. Politics would provide rough guidelines, but the real details and decisions of administration would be handled by specialists, combining the power of government with the authority of science to bring about the betterment of society.

Out of this argument for the rule of professional guardians comes the theory of the “living” Constitution, of judicial experts trained in new-styled law schools to adapt the Constitution and the laws to the changing needs of the time.

This idea of enlightened administration is not merely an aspect of modern political life — an extension of the Founders’ recognition of the need for good administration, or a necessary adaptation of the existing structure. It is a new and all-encompassing form of political organization, a new “regime.” It represents, as Max Weber and others have argued, the final rationalization of politics.

As such, administrative government is not a symptom of the problem. It is the problem.