HomeArticlesThe Fiction of Disinterested Administrative Governments

The Federalist Papers: The Best Argument for the Constitution

Today I was sent an article by a friend asking for my response. It is titled “The Birth of the Administrative State:  Where It Came From and What It  Means for Limited Government” written by Ronald J. Pestritto, Associate Professor at Hillsdale College. It shows how understanding the Federalist Papers can lay bare many common errors and misconceptions about government in our culture and political parties today. I encourage you to read this article, and you will find my response to my friend Alan below.

Dear Alan,

This is an excellent article. It makes many of the main points that I have been making on this blog, and sheds light on the actions of some particular individuals like Woodrow Wilson, Dewey, and Goodnow who, like Obama, were academics sheltered in the cocoon of their ivory towers and failed to display any real understanding of human nature, incentive, and the production of goods. I think this sentence pointed out the main mistake of the progressives:

The strong Progressive belief in the enlightenment and disinterestedness of administrators stands as an instructive contrast to the permanent self-interestedness that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution saw in human nature.

The disinterestedness of administrators is a total fiction. The founders understood human nature. The progressives are either naïve, or they criticize the Founder’s ideas to fulfill their own dictatorial ambitions. The view they promote is a naïve faith in bureaucracy as a savior, a false God if you will. They worship at its altar, or at least demand the citizens should worship it. Since they see themselves in charge of it, it becomes a way for them to exalt themselves above other people, as the high priests of this false god. It is the modern version of hubris and dictatorial power under the name of something that sounds benign-the administrative state.

However, we must understand that there is some truth in the concept of bureaucracy and bureaucratic administration. It can allow for equal justice for larger numbers of citizens if proper checks and balances are in place. The main problem is that administrators have the same human nature as the people they want to regulate, so when administrators both make rules and enforce them there is no check and balance.

Trying to boil down the history of political theory to its essence, I’ll make a couple of points. In The Republic, Plato explained nine reasons why pure democracy doesn’t work. Basically, citizens, as a group or mob, are unable to manage their own in-built conflicts of interest, explaining why one of Plato’s nine reasons is that democracies always go bankrupt.You can see this in the concept of referenda used in California, where voters will always vote for a property tax cut, and will also vote for programs that require expenditures that don’t tax them directly. This is self-interest at work in a democracy, and part of the reason California has such a debt burden.

Plato, like Woodrow Wilson and Obama, proposed a Republic along the lines of progressivism, where the “philosopher kings” would teach everyone how to live, and allocate all the resources from an enlightened perspective. They fail to abide by Kant’s dictum to treat everyone as an end-in-himself. Aristotle, saw through the vanity, or what F.A. Hayek might call the “fatal conceit” of this rule by elite. He understood human nature, and that people are not happy working as a sort of slave to someone else’s goal. They want families and private property to pursue their own goals—like throwing a party, designing their own house, or hosting a guest. Plato’s communist system wouldn’t allow this to happen. A political system’s primary goal was to enable people to pursue happiness. The failure of such administrative states can be summed up in the Roman poet Juvenal’s quote “Who guards the guardians?” from his Satires.

Thus, the idea of a constitutional Republic came to the fore. A constitution is based on principles that (1) protect people from themselves (the errors of democracies), and (2) protect people from the rulers (the errors of Plato and modern academic elitists). This is what the Roman Republic initially was, with its Twelve Tables of law serving as a constitution adopted by all citizens, and it is what the US founding set out to accomplish with the creation of the US Constitution.

The decline of Rome corresponded to its leaders disrespect for the original compact. They eventually changed the system so that the law eventually became viewed as the whims of the emperors and provincial governors, instead of fidelity to the original principles of their social compact. When this happened, people lost respect for the rule of law, Rome became a police state, and eventually the entrepreneurial energies of the people were destroyed. The descendants of the large Roman middle class ended up as serfs to those feudal lords who held land by political force. The population of Europe was as decimated by the breakdown of its political system as it was by the Bubonic Plague, only it occured over a longer period of time.

The decline of the United States and Europe today stems from these same problems of abandoning the known principles of checks and balances that prevent either democratic ruin or unchecked rule by elites. Both these are dangers when constitutional principles are abandoned. “Arbitrary rule” happens when the enforcer of the law is also the rule-maker. An “executive order” by the president is the most obvious example, because originally the president was supposed to administer the law that people, through the lower house, and the states, through the upper house, jointly created. It is not just Democratic presidents like Obama that abandon these sound political principles. Republican Presidents like George W. Bush seem to do it also. You see, both of them have human nature, the very nature that a constitution is designed to restrain when it oversteps boundaries that turn a sovereign people into serfs of a bureaucratic state.

When there is arbitrary rule, planning becomes impossible. And, since industrial production requires planning, economic production declines under arbitrary rule. A good example is the difference between driving in the US and Mexico, where policemen stop drivers and make their own rules on the spot and extract bribes for the privilege of driving. This deters people from driving in Mexico, whereas they will drive in the US where policemen can only enforce laws made by legislators, and the courts back up the complaints of citizens.

While our problems today stem from the same loss of restraint on human behavior as Ancient Greece and Rome experienced, they are complicated by the nature of modern bureaucracy, which is not well understood and still worshipped as a god by Western culture. We have learned how to create bureaucracies, but not how to control their expansion or shut them down. Hence, as our society gets older, we have many redundant, outdated, and useless bureaucracies sucking up large amounts of money while providing little service to society. This fascination with bureaucracy as a modern savior is evident both in the citizens, whose legislators try to solve problems by establishing panels, agencies, and committees, and by administrators like Pres. Obama who has established 160 such agencies for the administration of one program–Obamacare—a Plato-like system, par excellence.

Bureaucratic agencies are made of self-interested human beings, who turn their agencies into little fiefdoms. Bureaucracies provide “jobs” that give financial security so their employees can pursue their own happiness. However, unlike the market, where one has to perform a useful service to get paid, bureaucrats use their positions of power to resist budget cuts, defend budget increases, and design new taxes or little business endeavors that will fund them in perpetuity, insulating them from the normal pressures of life. They become like little corporations but without the normal principles of the market to keep them productive and useful. These temptations, which are not unlike the characteristics displayed by a spoiled brat who inherits his family business, are not checked in most bureaucracies created by modern societies.

Max Weber, the great 20th century sociologist, foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union by observing  the type of administrative bureaucracies being put into place. He understood that the system would fall from bureaucratic weight. After the founders and their iron fists (Lenin and Stalin) passed away the Russian system became an unhappy Leviathan. Leonid Brezhnev has gone down in Soviet history as the administrator who lost total control of bureaucratic expansion. In the United States, these honors will probably be shared by George W. Bush, who created homeland security and the TSA, and Barack Obama, who created Obamacare. Neither of these mammoth bureaucracies have any checks and balances built in. And, either one alone is established as a Leviathan eventually capable of bankrupting the US economy. And, neither of these bureaucracies serve the cause of human freedom or the pursuit of happiness.

The US founders foresaw the possibility of these types of problems, although they lived in a much different world. The principles they attempted to uphold in the constitution they created have not gone obsolete. Our technology has changed, our population has increased, and new forms of social organization have developed. But human nature never changed. Marx and Lenin said that communism would create “a new man” it did not. They got the “old man” in a new social position and he was eventually called “the nomenklatura.”

Ronald J. Pestritto is correct in his analysis that administrators will not express either disinterestedness nor omniscience, the two requirements of a society of philosopher kings to work. Such a “new man” would voluntary recommend his own pay cut, before the rationing of public services. A priest might do this, Jesus and Socrates might be known for this, but not a bureaucrat in either the Soviet system or the Western bureaucratic state. Religion can help shape a “new man” but the state cannot. Time and time again it has proven it’s inability, which is why the U.S. founders knew that the type of culture created by the religions of their time was a prerequisite to the government that would spring forth from it.

Culture should teach respect for the principles that underlie the political system—subsidiarity, checks and balances, limited government, etc. George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” the Federalist Papers, and even the anti-federalist papers, should be read in high schools. Today the masses, and now the leaders who arise from those masses, are ignorant of the rule of law necessary for a complex society to function. Rather, people form into the factions Madison feared would arise (e.g., Federalist 10), and attempt to use the power of government to get something for their group at the expense of everyone else. Such factions bear many similarities to the Hutu and Tutsi factions of Rwanda that contested over state power, they are not ethnic groups, but they are social groups who would use government the same way to advance their own group at the expense of the other.

Today in the US, two large factions, the Republican and Democratic parties, now exercise extreme influence over all three branches of government. They have violated Constitutional principles, and supported constitutional amendments that have given them this influence. This is one of the main reasons I wrote, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0, a book designed to enable us to create a constitutional system based on the US founding principles and revised to address the changes in society that have evolved since their time.

Your Friend,




The Fiction of Disinterested Administrative Governments — 8 Comments

  1. I appreciate your additional comments to place us in historical context with the ancients – from which our Founders drew wisdom – as well as the examples from Soviet history – from which (alas) you would have hoped that we could have learned from their failures.

    One aspect of modern society that seems to drive the Progressives is the incessant justification for more centralization of power to deal with the complexity of our world today. No one would argue that we are not a highly complex society. They claim that the checks and balances of our constitution are part of the problem and not the solution because they get in the way of addressing issues expeditiously. This is a practical argument, not a philosophical one. What is the answer to that line of thinking that seems to ring so true to many people? It may be in your book, but remind us again! Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Alan, Some degree of centralization is required. You have to understand the principle of subsidiarity and the concept of “the greatest responsibility to the lowest level of governance.” For example, air quality is a concern to all human beings and there can conceivably be principles (e.g. international air quality standards) that nations are encouraged to uphold. However, a set of laws is not a bureaucracy. They do not need a tax. No new courts need to be set up. Existing courts can be used. No people ought to earn their livelihood by creating some new bureaucracy funded by a tax system like “cap and trade” that will funnel billions of dollars into an agency the both promulgates rules and enforces them. We see this type of false logic alive and well, and I addressed it some in my article on Rio+20, Sea-Level Rise, Fear, and Taxes: http://blog.ganderson.us/2012/05/rio20-sea-level-rise-fear-and-taxes/ Where certain people are attempting to create an international parasite.

      Therefore, some central entity like the United Nations can conceivably be established as a Federation of Nations, along the lines that the United States or the EU could be a Federation of States. However, it is imperative that power flow upward and not downward. The US Constitution was to govern a system in which power flowed upward. However, as mentioned elsewhere. The system has been subverted by centralizers so that power now flows downwards from political parties funded by factional interests. And, the 17th Amendment put the final nail on the coffin of state power in the passage of legislation in the government original designed as a compact among states. Currently, both the United Nations and its various agencies are not created in a way that controls the self-interested behavior the US Founders so well understood.

  2. As always, Gordon writes an extremely well-informed piece. His central point, that no government – administrative or otherwise – can be disinterested – is undebatable. So is the fact that it is the realistic awareness of this which distinguishes the Founding Fathers from most other political reformers in history.

    The comments about bureaucracy are also a propos. I would characterize Weber as ambivalent, as he was both a critic and an admirer of bureaucracy, seeing it as potentially more egalitarian, meritocractic and efficient than earlier forms of social organization.

    I am puzzled by the choice of labels, here and in the article by Ronald Pestritto, to which Gordon’s piece is a reaction: To me, “Administrative Government,” evokes NOT Stalin, or Imperial Roman, or Plato’s “Dictatorship of the Intellectual”, but governments such as the stultifying, inefficient and now floundering European government in Brussels, and perhaps the Japanese government (about which I know very little).

    What ails the Brussels government is an entirely different issue, which I do not mean to raise here.

    I am just saying that the Brussels government is in my view the best example of a PURELY administrative government, with no ideology, no guidance, no inspiration, no vision.

    The governments labeled “administrative” by Pestritto and Gordon seem far more than just that (and therein lies the problem). One can hardly call Stalin, Mao, not to mention Hitler, “administrators.” They were ideological monsters. Rule by intellectuals (whether Plato’s philosopher-king or Professor Woodrow Wilson) may not have led to genocide, but it is dangerous for the same reason – ideology and theory prevail over human beings, who become means, in violation of Kant’s prime moral directive.

    It is also difficult to see Imperial rule in ancient Rome as merely “administrative.” At best, some emperors were indeed first and foremost good administrators (Augustus, Vespasian, Hadrian, etc.), but more often they were arbitrary tyrants.

    • Tom understands all my main points well. I accept that Weber was ambivalent, and I would agree that bureaucracies can be positive–they just have to be regulated better. I don’t think the US could have a population of 350 million people without bureaucracies. They main point is that modern bureaucratic states are fairly new. It is also valid to make a distinction between regimes like Brussels and the dictatorial versions of the modern rational bureaucratic state. However, the Soviet system, despite the fact that it was implemented through the barrel of a gun and gulags, consisted of rational bureaucracy from the onset. Weber made his prediction about 1921 when Lenin was still at the helm. Because Lenin and Stalin were ruthless dictators, they were able to rein in bureaucracy,in fact they disposed of many liberal revolutionary supporters who thought they’d be guaranteed a bureaucratic post in return as “useful idiots.” Khrushchev, and most notably Brezhnev, lost control of the bureaucracy in Russia, whose weight caused the collapse of the system in 1991.

      Brussels, on the other hand, just accepted the administrative state as the form of rule. Thus they may have begun with the basis of Leviathan that wasn’t really unleashed in the USSR until Stalin’s death.

  3. The rise and fall of administrative / government systems is the problem of greed and power. It can be summed up … by following the power of money and the allure of the absolute right of bureaucrat kings. Who gets to stand at the apex of the political, materially constructive and literal food chain ? Call it the jaws and claws theory. The species with superior claws or weapons and superior persuasive intelligence or jaws will take control of its community and environment. It is a simple theory that can be applied to any social system or culture. As in nature and as well in human society, the power of clawing trumps the power of jawing. Long standing cultures and their histories can be understood from this simple point of view. From ancient to colonial times, political and ideological disagreements are settled finally on a sunlit meadow clearing where weapons are aimed to kill by opposing armies. On the domestic scale to preserve domestic tranquility, disputes are arbitrated through the due processes of the court system. More legal jawing by opposing advocates … whose judgements are enforced by a citizen militia. Although, scholars have become more sophisticated in their manipulations of language, human society has not strayed far from going into gun fights and war.

    Americans are embroiled in a civil war … over the subversion of its own Constitutional principles by the powers of selfish ambition, privileged wealth and undeserved entitlements. It’s a coalition of sophisticated talkers with false promises aligned with large populist masses, a citizenry unable to discern the federal double speak. The country is in urgent need of instruction on Constitutional meritocracy and fundamental reforms ( 4PF principles ).

  4. With the choice of Paul Ryan as VP on the Romney ticket, the table is set for a huge discussion on the role, scope and financial responsibility of Government in a modern economy. While conservatives applaud this, the progressives also relish the opportunity to bludgeon to death anybody questioning the inevitable march to Leviathan state. My hope is that the “non-ideological middle” will indeed get involved, pay attention and raise their awareness of the choices ahead. It is hard to educate the people during an election campaign, but an educated populace was the only way that the founders believed that a self-regulating society would remain free. We shall see come November 6th.

    • Please look forward to my forthcoming article on capital gains taxes vs. corporate taxes the how the political parties have clouded the real discussion to hide selfish-interests. Ryan and Romney will need to change their insistence on reducing capital gains taxes and focus on reducing corporate taxes and even increasing capital gains taxes in the name of economic justice.

    • Ron Paul tried to educate during an election campaign; but, the momentum of the downward slide of American political reasoning was too much to overcome. The power of the military industrial complex and the welfare / entitlement democracy are represented by the far ideological right and the far ideological left. The middle is occupied by corporate interests that take advantage of both extremes. Several countries have reached a similar kind of ideological impasse; a logjam that threatens to drown the country. Loggers were often left with a simple choice … to dynamite the logjam. An example of this kind of solution can be found at the heart of the Arab Spring.

      If the West is to avoid the Arab Spring solution then people will have to change their minds. People on the right, left and the corporate middle will have change their minds from self centered interests to whole purposes that are explained by 4PF principles – three objective purposes. We have been on this course for 40-50 years of trying to reach a new ideological consensus with little to show for the effort. The November election will give us a clue or prediction of the future. I would expect Paul Ryan to reach out to Ron Paul as the days count down to the election.

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