The Future of the Administrative State: Why PA Scholars Must Engage in the Debate

Two recent pieces (and one comment) has me thinking a lot about the future of the administrative state in America. The first piece, authored by Steven Hayward, appeared in the Claremont Review of Books. He writes:

Today the crisis of American government is expressed in an ungainly phrase that rarely appeared in conservative vocabulary in the 1950s and 1960s—the “administrative state,” by which is meant the independent “fourth branch of government” that fits nowhere within the scheme of the Constitution as understood by its authors…. The administrative state represents a new and pervasive form of rule, and a perversion of constitutional self-government.

Hayward’s piece reflects a longstanding minority viewpoint in conservative thought that the administrative state (and public administration itself) is a tyrannical illegitimate actor without direct lines of accountability to voters. Someone might remind Hayward that local government is not mentioned in the Federal Constitution either, but that is another point. The larger point is that Hayward’s viewpoint went mainstream when Steve Bannon stated that a main objective of the Trump administration is the “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” The second recent piece, authored by David French, appeared in the National Review in reaction to Bannon’s comments.   French writes:

Let’s not forget, the administrative state exists in large part because Congress has intentionally abdicated authority. It passes extraordinarily broad bills that empower executive-branch agencies to write even more law and impose even more restrictions. Congress goes home and says, “We voted for clean air,” while the EPA does all the heavy lifting to define what that really means. Or Congress says, “We voted for banking reform and better markets,” while an array of agencies promulgate rule after rule affecting companies from coast to coast.

My, former employer, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) expressed support for French’s position, posting it on Facebook next to the phrase, “One can hope.” I bring up WPRI because it is hardly a radical organization, it is staffed and led by thoughtful serious people. To put it another way, the view that the administrative state is by definition illegitimate is out of the fever swamps and into the sphere of mainstream political debate.

This scares the hell out of me.

America is built on a foundation of contradictions, the most important being the balancing of majority rule with individual liberties. What French sees as Congress abdicating authority I see as Congress delegating authority in the areas in which it has no expertise or legitimacy. Getting one more vote than your opponent does not make one capable of implementing a law or running a program efficiently, effectively, or equitably. It does make one a legitimate representative of the nation’s (or district’s, or state’s) values. The cliché that politics decides and administration does exists for a reason. Running our constitution, and ensuring that individual liberties are not sacrificed at that altar of populism, requires a competent independent administrative state. It requires the field of public administration.

I make these points fully aware that they are insufficient rebuttals to Hayward, French, and Bannon. Why? When I became a state employee and a professor of public administration, I became part of the problem in the eyes of those who seek to deconstruct the administrative state. So what can I do, and more importantly what can the field of public administration do, to address what really is an existential threat to the relevance of our field?

We must engage in these debates. I go on Twitter or to conferences and I too often see groupthink. The attacks on the administrative state are dismissed as the political class failing to understand what government does. Or we dismiss the messengers as members of fringe groups not to be taken seriously. Or we talk to one another and shake our heads about how little people understand about how government actually works. Or we spend our time in the world of esoteric ideas that spawn articles that help our careers and provide intellectual stimulation, but fail to address the realities of governance. I myself am guilty of all of this. Though I struggle to fully articulate what engagement actually looks like, I know the first step is recognizing the threat is real.  How do we as a field, or as individuals who care about the administrative state, react?

We must find more ways to be proactive in broadcasting what the administrative sector actually does. French clearly sees it is as nothing but crippling regulation. President Trump’s comment last night that no new regulation will be passed without two being dropped reflects French’s point of view. It is a ridiculous notion that divorces decision making from reality, but one that must be recognized and debated nonetheless.

We must work to end the dichotomous debate over the administrative state. A former (and conservative) colleague of mine put it well: Debating the size of government is pointless, instead we should debate its effectiveness. Somehow, mainstream conservative thought has degraded into blanket condemnation of the administrative state. America does not work if one party is pro-government and one party is anti-government. When we see calls for smaller government, less regulation, or rebalancing of federalism, we must engage with those making those calls. We must ask the why question.

We cannot take for granted that the current state of the public sector is ideal. It is not because it never is. Values, needs, methods, and resources all change. What does not change is the need for an effective administrative state. Let’s have the effectiveness debate. Let’s debate the appropriate size and scope of administrative power. And let’s meet the mainstream ideas present in both political parties as they exist, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.  Failure is not just the irrelevance of our field, but the loss of an administrative infrastructure with immense capacity to protect individual liberties, and improve the quality of life across our nation.

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