The Corner

Our Partisan Bureaucracy and the End of the Civil Service

It had to happen eventually. The party of government and the government itself would start to merge into one seamless whole — capable of acting on their respective desires without even the necessity of explicit instructions. Kevin Williamson, Michael Walsh, and others sounded this alarm as the IRS scandal unfolded, and we were faced with two unsettling possibilities: Either the political branches of government were so craven they ordered a tea-party crackdown or the bureaucracy was so corrupt it cracked down on its own accord.

And we see this with even more obvious visuals today, as the barricades and thug tactics of the National Park Service remind us that yet another agency of the federal government asked not what it could do for its country but what it could do to preserve its own power and privilege. In the national parks, there’s not a shutdown, there’s a crackdown. Unless, of course, you want to use the National Mall for an amnesty rally.

When faced with unexpected budgetary challenges, agencies operating in good faith act as individual Army brigades and battalions have acted after the sequester and other budget crises: They do all they can to accomplish the mission, to serve the people of the United States even in the face of resource constraints. But the Army and the other branches of the military — though imperfect — are governed by a centuries-old code of honor that predates even our Constitution. The IRS has no such ethical core. Apparently, neither does the NPS.

An ethical agency would evaluate its options in the face of cutbacks and do its best — in concert with state and local governments and citizen volunteers — to maintain the broadest possible access to the public. Any closures would be a regrettable necessity, not a defiant statement, and under no circumstances would more money be spent to keep the public out than it took to allow the public in. But we are not dealing with an ethical agency.  

Mark Steyn a few minutes ago called for the abolition of the NPS and IRS, and given the abysmal conduct of both agencies, I agree. But the rot goes far deeper. We’re witnessing the end of the civil service.

The utopian goal of the civil service was to create something like a professional class of public servants, individuals dedicated to the public good regardless of the party in power — a final break from the spoils system and its attendant rampant corruption and cronyism. And in one sense the civil-service system succeeded. The spoils system was broken. Instead, however, of either the back-and-forth of the old system, or the true “civil service” envisioned by the new, there’s now a permanent distribution of spoils – to one side of our ideological divide.

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