Darn Bureaucrats Saving the World
By Leo Sopicki
It’s that time of year for best-of and top-10 lists. Atop many of these lists, by supporters of President Trump, sits the claim that for every new regulation, 22 bureaucratic rules have been undone. The president’s opponents decry this as selling out to selfish business interests. The president’s supporters blame the bureaucracy for resisting the will of the people. His detractors praise parts of the bureaucracy, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, for saving the world.
On a deeper level, this is really a debate about the nature of bureaucracies and their role in government. To intelligently debate this, we need to ask where our bureaucracy came from and how it should be controlled.
Not in the Constitution
The United States didn’t invent bureaucracy and the Constitution enumerates only three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. No mention of the Department of Motor Vehicles in there at all. So, who invented it and why do we have it?
In one form or another, bureaucracies go back as far as government. In popular culture bureaucrats often are the bad guys. Type “tax collectors” into Google and it will offer to complete your search with “and sinners” or “and prostitutes.” Bureaucrats also do not fare well in the work of Charles Dickens (Little Dorrit), Franz Kafka (The Trial) or Joseph Heller (Catch 22).
Have they ever been the good guys?
If by “good” you mean stability and consistency, yes. The bureaucracy of the Byzantine Empire kept the successor of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean humming along for a thousand years after the western half of the empire was overrun by Germanic barbarians. The empire functioned well, despite the emperors at the top often being licentious, self-centered buffoons. Yet, and perhaps revealingly, “byzantine” as an adjective means “excessively complicated, typically involving a great deal of administrative detail.”
So, how did America’s least favorite component of government originate?
To the Victor
George Washington appointed honest, talented people to the first government. The American government grew as many new jobs where authorized by Congress. It became the practice of incoming administrations to replace all the job holders with their own loyalists. The name of this practice, colloquially known as “To the Victor Go the Spoils,” was derived from a speech made by New York Sen. William L. Macy in 1828. He was defending the mass firings and appointments made by President Andrew Jackson.
In Jackson’s time there were 20,000 federal employees. As government grew more complex and larger, replacing positions with political employees led to inefficiency and corruption. By the 1880s, there were over 130,000. Reform was needed.
In 1883, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Pendleton Act. This law required that federal government jobs be awarded based on merit and exams. It made it unlawful to fire employees for political reasons or to require them to make political contributions to gain or retain employment. The act established the Civil Service Commission to oversee the process.
Now, more than 90% of the federal government’s 2.7 million employees are part of the Civil Service system.
Problem solved, right?
Having spent my working life split 50-50 between the private and public sectors, I can testify that there are many dedicated, enthusiastic and well-meaning civil servants working in the government. I have also known people who held the citizens they were supposedly serving in contempt and spent most of their time on internal bureaucratic politicking. Such is human nature.
The Pendleton Act, as is typical of many laws, had unintended consequences. It initially improved government efficiency, reduced unethical behavior, and restored confidence in the government. However, by putting most government employees beyond the management reach of the people’s representatives, it created America’s first protected class. Civil servants became primarily responsive to other civil servants under rules made by yet other civil servants.
Nowadays, even Congress has a hard time getting the bureaucracy it created to provide information about what it has done or intends to do.
The secondary impact of the system was to create a class of citizens who saw, correctly, that it was in their own best interest for the power of the government to increase. The more regulations that were promulgated, the more their personal influence and paychecks grew. Not creating more regulations? Not doing your job.
These two factors contribute to why you get good service at a fast food restaurant and are treated as an annoyance at a government office.
Where to Now?
So, what about those top 10 lists? The fact that 22 regulations have been rescinded for each new one created is in itself neither good nor bad. It depends on what the impact of each of the regulations has been. Twitter wars rarely go this deep. Trump supporters need to concede that some regulations do protect us. No one wants to find rat tails in their hot dogs.
Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers need to study the free market and what the results of the ultimate bureaucracy (Communism) have been. That selfish business interest, McDonald’s, cannot force you to buy their french fries. You have the freedom to choose your lunch. The bureaucracy, however, can and has prohibited McDonald’s from providing affordable food in poor neighborhoods and thrown an extra tax on that sugary soda you like. You have no choice about that.
The solution is to limit government as the founding fathers intended. They believed that government has two purposes: first, to protect us from the use of force against our persons or our property by criminals or foreign powers, and, second, to enforce contracts. (That there will be no rat tails in your hot dogs is an implied contract.) If we move our government in a Libertarian direction so that it does just those things, we shouldn’t have a problem with our bureaucrats. Maybe the federal bureaucracy would shrink back to 130,000 dedicated civil servants.
In the meantime, see you in line at the DMV.
LTC Leo P. Sopicki, US Army (Ret.) is an Infantry and Psychological Operations veteran. His book, “Speak Truth to Patriots,” is available on Amazon.