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America's Way Back
Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution
By Donald J. Devine
ISI BooksCopyright © 2013 Donald J. Devine
All rights reserved.
NEW DEAL FAITH SHATTERED
Is it possible even all these years later to suppress a smile at Ronald Reagan's little joke about the government's relentless attempts to solve all of life's problems: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'"?
President Reagan may have made a joke, but today, Paul Light is serious about the problem — very serious. Light is the endowed professor of public service at New York University, the founding director of the Brookings Center for Public Service, and a senior adviser to the National Commission on the Public Service. Writing in the Washington Post, the company-town paper of the federal government, he made a remarkable statement about the American national government. Light was prompted to write when, on Christmas Day 2010, a previously identified terrorist bomber successfully passed airport security, to be foiled only by his own incompetence:
The systemic failures that led to the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 are, sadly, all too familiar. Substitute the words "Christmas Day plot" for tainted meat, poisoned peppers, aircraft groundings, the Columbia shuttle accident, Hurricane Katrina, counterfeit Heparin, toxic toys, the banking collapse, Bernie Madoff or even Sept. 11, and the failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the "no-fly" list becomes yet another indication that the federal government can no longer guarantee the faithful execution of our laws.
Professor Light is not alone in condemning the federal government's performance. In fact, the loss of faith in the modern welfare state is widespread. The National Commission on the Public Service has issued two reports detailing the government's inability to execute its laws. The reports were endorsed by avatars of establishment welfare-state progressivism: Walter Mondale, Vernon Jordan, Donna Shalala, Doug Fraser, John Gardner, Charles "Mac" Mathias, Edmund Muskie, John Brademas, Derek Bok, Elliot Richardson, Paul Volcker, and dear old Gerry Ford, among many others.
When Professor Light wrote, the widely accepted Pew Research Center surveys provided a detailed picture of the public's opinions about government and how it differed from the climate of opinion in the late 1990s: "At that time, the public's desire for government services and activism was holding steady. This is not the case today. Just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century." The decline in support was not just for politicians but also for the experts in the bureaucracy who must make the programs work:
Favorable ratings for federal agencies and institutions have fallen since 1997–98 for seven of 13 federal agencies included in the survey. The declines have been particularly large for the Department of Education, the Food and Drug Administration, the Social Security Administration, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Being an expert on the management of the welfare state, Professor Light thought that much of the problem was simply administrative and could be cured by organizational reform. Some of the problems identified were conventional — too many layers of government for those at the top to understand what was going on below them; too many political appointees undergoing an "agonizing" confirmation process, resulting in too many executive vacancies; and using too many contractors, whom government officials could not supervise well.
But the good professor cited some disturbing facts about the very experts who populate the public service bureaucracy: only a third of federal employees told government pollsters that their promotions were based on merit; even fewer thought poor performers were held accountable; and less than 40 percent believed innovation and creativity were rewarded. This bureaucratic slack, Light noted, "contributed to the Christmas Day incident" and the general decline of government.
This is not how the modern progressive welfare state was supposed to work.
Bureaucracy: The Modern Solution
With government the butt of so many jokes — Reagan also quipped that "a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth" — it is nearly impossible to understand how bureaucracy once was considered the salvation of civilization.
In the nineteenth century, European intellectuals began hailing the "scientific" approach to administration as the solution to the failings of previous regimes. The German economic historian Max Weber captured this approach in his classic Theory of Social and Economic Organization. There he argued that the traditional forms of government were no longer appropriate. Ruling authority should not be derived from lineage, as in monarchies or clans, or from the exceptional qualities of a charismatic leader. Weber held that authority should be based on rational rules, not arbitrary personal status or power. He called for bureaucratic authority based on a rational, hierarchical ordering of society. Weber praised the efficiency of a system, whether public or private, whereby logical rules clearly fixed responsibilities among various bureaus and organizations:
Experience tends universally to show that the purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization — that is, the monocratic variety of bureaucracy — is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability. It thus makes possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for the heads of the organization and for those acting in relation to it. It is finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the scope of its operations, and is formally capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks.... The primary source of the superiority of bureaucratic administration lies in the role of technical knowledge which, through the development of modern technology and business methods in the production of goods, has become completely indispensable.
A group of self-identified progressive American intellectuals took notice of this new model of efficient organization. In 1886 one such academic, a newly minted PhD, published a pathbreaking article titled "The Study of Administration." Expressing admiration for the efficiencies of the bureaucratic systems "developed by French and German professors," the scholar wrote that Americans should not "be frightened at the idea of looking into foreign systems of administration for instruction and suggestion." Although he conceded that the European system needed to be adapted for American "popular sovereignty" and local conditions and institutions, he declared that the true challenge was to "make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listens to the right things." The "right things" were to turn political administration over to professional experts and let them decide on scientific grounds what was good for society.
Unfortunately, the scholar said, "not much impartial scientific method is to be discerned in [America's] administrative practices." The source of the problem was the U.S. Constitution, which divided power rather than concentrated it. The Constitution's division of powers had frustrated progress in the United States from the beginning, he argued. According to "The Study of Administration," the Constitution's framers were wrong to fear the concentration of power: "There is no danger in power, if only it be not irresponsible. If it be divided, dealt out in shares to many, it is obscured; and if it be obscured, it is made irresponsible. But if it be centered in heads of the service and in heads of branches of the service, it is easily watched and brought to book. If to keep his office a man must achieve open and honest success, and if at the same time he feels himself entrusted with large freedom of discretion, the greater his power the less likely is he to abuse it, the more is he nerved and sobered and elevated by it." The "science of administration" would provide that responsible form of concentrated power.
A little more than a quarter century later, the author of that groundbreaking article became president of the United States. As president, Woodrow Wilson put much of his progressive thinking into practice. In 1912 he announced a New Freedom program that created the central institutions of the bureaucratic welfare state: the Federal Reserve banking system; progressive income taxation; loans to the largest private-sector business of the day, agriculture; the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust bureau, which marked the beginning of the regulatory state; and more government regulation generally. These measures fundamentally changed American government, centralizing authority on the premise — and promise — that the federal bureaucracy could more effectively deal with modern problems. Wilson, however, was too hemmed in as a minority president with a conservative Congress, and later by the demands of World War I, to implement fully his constitutional reform program.
Progressivism really became the dominant fact of American government with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1932 pledged "a new deal for the American people," a "new order of competence and courage," a new way of governing that would compassionately guarantee Americans freedom from want and fear. Roosevelt threw the whole power of a vastly expanded government against the Great Depression, beginning the long reign of progressivism in American government and politics, which endures to this day. Progressivism was not a partisan movement. President Theodore Roosevelt was a leading member of the progressive faction in the Republican Party and he ran as presidential nominee of the Progressive Party. Some modern historians trace the effective beginning of the New Deal to progressive Republican Herbert Hoover's programs, especially his Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
By 1960 the progressive welfare state had become, as its most famous theorist, Gunnar Myrdal, boasted, "the widely acclaimed ideal of a whole nation." Americans by then had accepted the progressive dogma that national prosperity and welfare had come into being not "as a result of the unhampered play of market forces, but through public policies, which are all under the ultimate sanction of the state." The American public expected the government to move to solve social ills. But even by that point the people had grown dissatisfied with the government's intrusiveness. "To many persons, the term 'Welfare State' has negative, not positive, connotations," Myrdal wrote. He worried that this public skepticism made people reluctant to grant authorities the central planning power he thought was necessary to make the welfare state work efficiently. Of course, before the 1960s were out, the federal government had massively expanded its bureaucratic power yet again under Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
Only by the late 1970s, after years of brutal stagflation — an economy fettered by both inflation and stagnation — did the bipartisan faith in the bureaucratic welfare state show signs of weakening. Even then, however, President Reagan's efforts to reduce the burden of government were quickly overturned. His successors once again turned to expert bureaucracy to plan better for the general welfare. Republican President George W. Bush epitomized the commitment to progressive bureaucratic solutions, declaring, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."
Failing the Test
Bush entered the presidency promising to be both empathetic and effective, pledging his commitment to "compassionate conservatism" and to using his skills as the first MBA president to run government efficiently. When asked what kind of conservative he was, he said he was an "efficient-government conservative" as opposed to a small-government conservative, reflecting the progressivism of his hero Theodore Roosevelt.
The national government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 offered the clearest test of Bush's vision and the welfare-state hope in the federal bureaucracy's efficiency. Progressive columnist E. J. Dionne Jr., the man President Bill Clinton credited with inspiring his "New Democrat" politics, noted that the Katrina disaster was "a time when government is morally obligated to be competent, prepared, innovative, flexible, well-financed — in short, smart enough and, yes, big enough to undertake an enormous task." As Dionne put it, the "government is the enemy until you need a friend."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up headquarters in Washington even before the storm landed and began planning distribution of supplies and organizing outside assistance from New Orleans. President Bush declared the hurricane a national disaster on Monday, August 29, the day the storm hit the Gulf Coast. FEMA's parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), proclaimed the storm an "incident of national significance" on Tuesday.
But soon it became clear that the federal government was failing this big test. FEMA initiated its new post-9/11 DHS security pass system, allowing only those with the required expertise to enter the affected zone. This immediately became a bar to outside assistance. Florida attempted to send five hundred airboats but could not receive the needed security clearance; a flotilla from Shreveport was halted too. Bush housing secretary Alphonso Jackson complained at a cabinet meeting that his attempts to provide emergency housing had been thwarted by red tape. When trying to send a private helicopter to the scene, a congressman representing the area was told that FEMA was in charge, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was in charge, and the military was. A mayor in his district was put on hold for forty-five minutes. Security forces blocked scores of private rescue boats from docking on the river. A sheriff was told to e-mail a request for help when he had no electricity.
Bureaucratic planning done years earlier was the biggest culprit. The federal government had actually taken control of the Mississippi levees in 1879. Those protecting New Orleans were supposedly designed to deal with a Category 3 hurricane; for a time Katrina was a Category 4. Who decided on a lower level of protection? Why, the federal government, of course, in the form of presidential budgets, congressional appropriations, and Corps of Engineers plans and projects. The Corps expert bureaucracy must look at the entire U.S. seacoast and make decisions on objective needs, and there is not enough money in the world to build against Category 4 storms all along America's thousands of miles of coastline. New Orleans is particularly vulnerable, but many other locations face potential danger — the largest previous disaster was in Galveston, Texas, for example. Bush had actually spent slightly more on levees than Clinton and much more on organizational expertise in the new Department of Homeland Security. But big money and big government did not help.
A larger problem was that President Bush, along with his FEMA director, the governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans, and many other officials, encouraged the idea that "we are in charge" and all would be all right as long as the government was on the case. The only problem was that big government was not in charge and can never be. Once it is big, it metastasizes into multiple forms. As the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger noted, "Large public bureaucracies, whether the FBI and the CIA or FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, don't talk to each other much." The need to win government appropriations makes agencies responsive to "political whim," while "real-world problems, as the 9/11 Report noted, inevitably seem distant and minor."
But President Bush accepted the progressive argument that expertise centrally directed with sufficient power can solve big problems. His own brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, criticized the federal government for trying to do too much: "I can say with certainty that federalizing emergency response to catastrophic events would be a disaster as bad as Hurricane Katrina. If you federalize, all the innovation, creativity, and knowledge would subside." Clearly, FEMA and DHS's security controls severely interrupted both local and voluntary efforts to assist the victims, including the major efforts the state of Florida offered. The agency discouraged multiple offers of private help. Foreign donations were halted at airports and ports to secure required State Department and Department of Homeland Security clearance. "Buy America" provisions of labor law were used to deny a large Dutch offer.
Excerpted from America's Way Back by Donald J. Devine. Copyright © 2013 Donald J. Devine. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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