Magazine | April 20, 2015, Issue

A New Form of Government

A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, by Jay Cost (Encounter, 408 pp., $27.99)

Recently, former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell (R.) and his wife were convicted on federal charges for accepting over $100,000 worth of shoes, watches, and golf clubs from a political donor. That’s small potatoes compared with what some of the heavy hitters of the Gilded Age could rake in: In one year alone, Joseph Foraker (Ohio’s U.S. senator from 1897 to 1909) took in nearly $1.2 million in today’s dollars. And Foraker was hardly the worst offender. Matthew Quay, boss of the Pennsylvania political machine, apparently demanded so much money that deep-pocketed Standard Oil had to pay him in installments.

Following closely in the tradition of Theodore Lowi’s classic The End of Liberalism, Jay Cost’s A Republic No More is less about the distinguished history of corruption he chronicles than about how our ways of governing have changed, and how the maldistribution of federal powers feeds corruption and is destroying our constitutional republic.

Cost takes his bearings from James Madison’s theory of republican government, famously outlined in Federalist 10. Madison warns of the danger of factionalism, of a minority or a majority “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or interest” adverse to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. Madison’s constitutional system is carefully designed to separate and check power so as to break and control faction, thereby keeping narrow special interests from dominating public policy for their own selfish ends.

But things have not worked out that way. From the very beginning, politicians have ignored Madison’s advice and constantly expanded their powers beyond the Constitution, throwing off the delicate institutional balance and separation of powers at the heart of the Madisonian structure. Without the proper institutional checks, politicians behave irresponsibly and, with more and more money flowing freely, there is more and more corruption.

So who let the moneychangers into our constitutional temple? Cost charges that the flashpoint was in 1790, when the first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed the Bank of the United States as part of his national economic program. This unprecedented expansion disrupted the constitutional balance and affected everything that followed, launching America on the slippery slope of living constitutionalism and rampant corruption. All the Jeffersonians (including Jefferson and Madison) eventually adopted Hamilton’s plans, which became the basis of Whig and Lincolnian Republican economic policy over the next century.

But the Bank is not the prototype of modern problems that Cost thinks. The bank dispute was an important policy debate over the kind of economy the new republic would foster. Madison opposed Hamilton’s initial bank proposal. But he supported the Second Bank of the United States not because he had changed his constitutional philosophy but because he had become convinced that a national bank was legitimately necessary and proper under the Constitution. Similarly, it was never really doubted that Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana (Cost’s other example of Constitution-busting by the Founders) was a constitutional act by a sovereign country (despite Jefferson’s problematic theory of prerogative power). These were not the fathers of big government birthing an unlimited state.

What then is the story? The popular argument is that big government is the problem and that size matters. True enough. But the real question is not just the degree but the kind of government that has been metastasizing throughout American society.

The problem is what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “centralization of administration.” In Democracy in America, Tocqueville foretold how citizens’ lives would become subjected to the uniform, scientific, deadening rules of a centralized administration of experts bent on mastering every social condition in pursuit of egalitarian ends. The outcome of the drive for bureaucratic rule would be a new form of despotism, promoting the narrow, selfish, petty interests of ruling oligarchs and their favored cronies. Tocqueville even predicted that the most advanced form of bureaucracy would also be the most corrupt.

This understanding accords well with the Founders’ view of the need for decentralized administration under a limited but energetic federal government meant to secure unalienable rights. Their improved political science — an improvement on classical and medieval regimes — would vindicate republican liberty through the constitutional rule of law and by limiting the power of narrow interests in favor of the common good.

After the Founding era came a new science of politics — rooted in the French philosophes and embraced by American progressives — that offered the promise of technocracy, applying modern science to bring continuous improvement to man and society through the administration of things rather than the politics of self-government. (Alexander Hamilton had called it a “heresy” to suggest that, of all forms of government, “that which is best administered is best.”)

Cost describes this new type of politics well. His underlying narrative therefore eventually supports a more sophisticated analysis, and a more persuasive argument, than the neo-anti-Federalist account on the book’s surface. Connecting the new theory of governance with the new forms of corruption that result is Cost’s most important contribution.

We get a whiff of the change in the 19th century, and then see the phenomenon become full blown in the progressive movement’s argument for separating administration and politics, to elevate supposedly neutral expertise over partisanship. Cost sees the New Deal as the key turning point, combining robust national patronage with the programmatic infrastructure of the welfare state.

But the fundamental change is when government becomes professionalized, sophisticated, regulatory, and all-embracing. This happened when the national government, in principle, assumed responsibility for the socioeconomic well-being of every American and set out to build the programs for managing, from the center, the interactions of consumers and producers, employees and employers, husbands and wives, parents and children — virtually every aspect of Americans’ day-to-day lives. This is precisely because bureaucracy demands that there be no sources of authority independent of the administrative center.

This centralization of administration has changed the nature of American governance. Massive bureaucracies of unelected experts, who have been delegated virtually endless authority by an increasingly irresponsible Congress, exert enormous discretion over extensive financial resources and political patronage. The ever-growing imperial presidency seeks to unify those resources for ideological political benefit.

The perennial old-style corruption (think of George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall) was mostly personal, parochial, and oddly quaint — greedy and vulgar, to be sure, but also unbureaucratic and unidealistic. The new corruption is different: As the personal and parochial is drawn into the administrative machinations of the federal government, everything becomes social, systemic, and comprehensive. This creates a paradise for the grand corruptions of multiplying political factions — for preferred corporations (Solyndra), whole industries (the auto bailout), voting groups (immigration executive orders), and segments of the economy (Obamacare).

The various domains of corruption that Cost aptly describes — from ordinary pork-barrel politics and farm subsidies to Medicare and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are the fulcrum of what he calls the “interest-group society” that now predominates.

This is not an extension of the Founders’ recognition of the need for decent political management under the Constitution, or a necessary adaptation of the existing constitutional structure to new circumstances, but an altogether new and all-encompassing form of political organization. The fact of the matter is that we are today subject to a different form of government than the one designed and practiced by the likes of Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton. Indeed, from a broader Madisonian point of view, we should consider whether government itself has become a faction, with its own interests and passions separate from the public good, supported by its own unionized labor, and surrounded by lobbyists and cronies dealing with agencies and bureaucracies that for all intents and purposes act without the consent of the governed.

In the end, Cost is doubtful much can be done: The structural defects in our constitutional regime leave government “poorly suited” to wield the power it now possesses. Congress is overwhelmed and the executive too democratized for serious institutional adjustments.

But while we are not on the cusp of a Madisonian restructuring, Cost concludes, we may be capable of what he calls a “Mugwump moment” — a reference to the anti-corruption Republican Mugwumps, who threw the 1884 election to Democratic reformer Grover Cleveland — in which we can harass the factions, disrupt their pathways of corruption, and buy some time until major institutional reforms can be implemented.

Perhaps Cost is right about that. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that bureaucratic rule — as Tocqueville and Madison held — violates man’s natural liberty. Which means that, as the political corruptions of expanding administrative rule become more apparent and objectionable, the American people — who have not consented to an oligarchy of experts — may reassert their popular authority over centralized rule and use Madison’s still-surviving institutions of constitutional government to become a republic once more.

– Mr. Spalding is an associate vice president of Hillsdale College and the dean of its educational programs in Washington, D.C.

Matthew Spalding is the associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Chair in Constitutional Studies.

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