When we talk about the administrative state—or the permanent bureaucracy or even the executive branch—it sounds formless, vast, impersonal. Critics of it tend to see it as an almost invisible force, a “deep state” performing its sinister machinations beneath the cover of the visible state.
When I think of the problems of the administrative state, I think of the Littles, Malcolm X’s family whose plight is recounted in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). After Malcolm X’s father died, his family had to go on welfare to survive. The welfare workers were extremely controlling and paternalistic. They constantly second-guessed the widow Little as a mother. They spoke to each child and “began to plant the seeds of division” in them against their mother and one another. They laid the groundwork to get young Malcolm removed from the household, as “they felt that getting children into foster homes was a legitimate part of their function”—when one could be forgiven for thinking that their function was simply to provide assistance to those in need.
The constant pressure of the welfare workers’ intrusive behavior resulted in Malcolm’s mother suffering a permanent mental breakdown. The family members were subsequently divided up into foster homes. Their tragic experience has more the feel of a horror story than a piece of history, yet it actually happened.
If the administrative state is commonly thought of as the “machinery of government,” then the Littles are a prime example of how ordinary human beings can be sliced up in its sharp edges. The Littles were the most vulnerable sort of people; they were an African-American family in a Jim Crow state and they were desperately poor. What should have been a life raft for them during hard times turned out to be an invitation for hostile, unaccountable, and powerful strangers to enter and control their home.
Nevertheless, we do want to be able to provide a safety net for those who have hit hard times, and we do want to create a government-backed floor below which citizens should not be allowed to fall. We also want children to be protected from abusive or dangerously negligent parents, and in some circumstances this has to entail removing them from their households.
We need the administrative state to perform the basic operations of modern government. The question is how we mitigate against abuses like the ones visited upon the Littles.
One line of argument holds that the problem is a lack of democratic accountability. “Unelected bureaucrats” is a common epithet that expresses this perspective. But the very scale of the welfare and regulatory functions of the state renders this an impossible solution; the average OECD country employs 18 percent of its workforce in government. For its part, America, with its many state and local elected positions in law enforcement, already has large ballots that are difficult for many voters to navigate by world standards. The idea of expanding them to include the twenty million people who work for the government in some capacity is laughable.
In practice, democratic accountability has to come in at the top of public organizations, either through direct elections—as with many state attorneys general—or through appointments by elected officials, as with the federal cabinet. One can debate how deep into an organization elections or appointments should go, but in practice they will always remain miles above the “street-level bureaucrat” like the ones that terrorized the Littles.
At the other extreme you find the still-persistent myth of the usefulness of a decisive dictator, unconstrained by parliamentary squabbling or trifling matters like checks and balances. Contemporary dictators often establish their social bases by drumming up populist hatred of the established administrative state, promising to settle scores and impose the base’s values on the implementers of the law. Political science is quite clear on this matter: Dictators face powerful incentives to undermine the competence of their governments in order to protect their own positions within it.
As Sheena Greitens notes in Dictators and Their Secret Police (2016), an effective government is “broadly embedded” and “socially inclusive,” and offers career advancement based on “merit” rather than “factional alignment” or “ethnic affiliation.” Meanwhile, to minimize the risk of coups perpetrated by members of a country’s elite, dictators require a government that is “internally fragmented and socially exclusive,” often relying on tactics like drawing from a specific ethnic minority to keep them divided from the broader population.
Censorship is one of the very first tools that dictators implement to sandbag the ability of the opposition to mobilize the population, but that very censorship makes it hard to acquire accurate information. Even if dictators cared about the competence of their civil servants, and even if they did not want individual civil servants to engage in abusive behaviors toward citizens, a censorship regime and a staff of yes-men make it very unlikely that dictators learn of such incompetence and abuse before they have time to stir up broader discontent. Moreover, dictators invariably care less about such things than they do about protecting their own position. The changes required to reduce incompetence and abuse necessarily increase the personal risk to the dictator, and for that reason dictators rarely initiate them.
It may seem paradoxical, but it is precisely in a democratic setting that we have the highest chances of obtaining a civil service that is independent, competent, and liberal. Political power in this setting not only regularly changes hands, but it will do so peacefully. The temptation to insulate incumbents is always there, of course—and indeed it is precisely the successful insulation of incumbents that leads democracies to degrade, whether gradually or quickly, into non-democracies. This is another reason that administrative institutions in healthy liberal democracies have a degree of independence. For example, the relative independence of the bodies that administer elections from the party system helps keep elections free and fair.
Without a dictator seeking to insulate himself from coups, and with free and fair elections keeping political elites responsive to the broad populace, liberal democratic regimes are more likely to invest in an administrative state that is on the whole competent and well integrated with the population, and to hold it accountable for its abuses.
Best of all of course are specifically liberal democracies. Liberal rights like freedom of speech and of association help provide accountability by airing information about government actions that might not have reached top authorities otherwise, and provide the means for citizens to organize pressure campaigns. In fact, administrative bodies themselves can be given a specifically liberal character and culture.
Especially since the middle of the 20th century, Americans have relied very heavily on the court system to accomplish that task. Americans know well the importance of Brown v. Board of Education to the civil rights movement. Yet few know of the landmark legal cases of the welfare rights movement, which attempted to address the abuses that Malcolm X witnessed in his childhood home.
Legal elites in the 1960s became very concerned with the power wielded by welfare workers over their charges. In a 1963 Yale Law Journal article, Charles Reich cited the “midnight welfare search” in which “unannounced inspections” are made “without warrants and in the middle of the night.” These legal activists believed that a liberal state must respect the equal dignity of all its citizens and behave in a transparently rule-governed manner, or it ceases to be a liberal state at all. They brought cases before the Supreme Court and won. The result was not only better treatment for existing welfare recipients, but an effective doubling of the number of eligible recipients in the country at the time.
The court approach has its limits and its costs, however. It tends to impose a legalistic and inflexible ethic by its nature. In his 2020 book The Machinery of Government, the political philosopher Joseph Heath recounts a case in which “an American steel firm . . . initially appointed a safety engineer to act as the go-between with [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration], but finding the agency too inflexible, it. . . dismissed the engineer and replaced him with a lawyer, who proceeded to stonewall all requests.”
Ultimately, courts can only do so much; they cannot review every single case and they move extremely slowly. The first line of defense must necessarily be to ensure, in Heath’s words, that the “independent set of norms” that govern the behavior of civil servants are liberal norms, something that can be done fairly directly “through training, mentorship programs, and active management initiatives.”
The administrative state, like all human institutions, is prone to error and abuse. We cannot guarantee the absence of either. But liberal democracy—with its responsive political leadership, its wide-open public sphere, and its ceaseless imposition of liberal values—is by far the best at reducing them.
Adam Gurri is founder and editor-in-chief of Liberal Currents.
Image: Photograph of the New Deal mural, "Post Office work room," 1937, by Alfredo de Giorgio Crimi at the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia)
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