The British vote to leave the European Union may just be the biggest shock to English bureaucratic government since the American Revolution.
After the Black Plague destroyed the medieval order, Europe began its 15th-century consolidation with England’s Henry VII’s War of Roses, Ferdinand and Isabela’s Spain, Ivan’s Russia, and Louis’s France, followed by the larger dreams of the Napoleonic, colonial, Soviet, and Reich empires. Centralization has marched through Europe for the last 600 years. It has now suffered its most resounding defeat.
There have been previous dissents: the Scottish almost voted for separation in 2014. Catalans, Basques, Flemish, North-Italians, and new-right parties across the continent today demand autonomy or separation. Norway and Sweden did in fact divide in 1905, as did the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Yet, with success in Brexit, the world’s fifth-largest economy changes everything. It will be followed by many others, and not only in Europe.
The problem is the same everywhere: the inability of an expert, centralized state bureaucracy to serve a wide variety of cultural preferences when these are given the freedom to exercise their variety. The experts in finance, banking, stock markets, the economy, and the rest all forecast disaster if Britain left, but the voters said: so what? We can weather a fiscal crisis, but not the loss of our native values. The overweening, isolated expert bureaucrats in Brussels simply had to go.
A comparison with the U.S. is inevitable. The Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders phenomena shake the same assumptions. Still, establishmentarian Hillary Clinton will presumably prevail in the end, and America’s expert bureaucracy will certainly survive and flourish under her tenure.
And yet, there is a Brussels aroma arising from America’s expert bureaucracy. The official U.S. Government Accountability Office recently surveyed the work-evaluation documents of 1.2 million federal employees and found that 99.6 percent were rated “fully successful” in their performance. This exceeds even the Ivory-soap standard of 99.44 percent pure. A mere 0.3 percent were rated as “minimally successful” and 0.1 percent as “unsuccessful,” a marvelous group of supermen and wonder women.
David Cox Sr., president of the largest federal-government union, the American Federation of Government Employees, explained how this remarkable performance was achieved: “Could it be that the careful scrutiny and open competition among applicants for federal jobs produces a workforce of highly skilled, responsible, productive employees?” he asked the Washington Post. “If agencies take care to hire the best possible people and in turn almost all of those people do at least everything they are asked to do in a satisfactory manner, where is the problem?”
William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, was a bit more modest, saying he thought the percentages were “a little high.” No problem. They are the best people.
Cox was more optimistic about the value of current recruitment practices than was the agency in charge. Questioning the efficacy of the self-evaluation “tests” used in federal employment today, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is trying to introduce a new hiring process called USAHire that actually measures competence, with less-than-enthusiastic support from the unions.
Even with the best people, U.S. agencies concede there are problems. Bureaucratic rules do not result in expected gains. Citizens complain, and many rules are widely evaded. Like Brussels, more power seems necessary. A study by American Transparency found that the number of non-defense federal workers authorized to make arrests and carry firearms today is 200,000, higher than the number of U.S. Marines. Only 75,000 federal workers were armed as recently as 1996.
One assumes the change must be terrorism-related until one realizes the Internal Revenue Service has 2,316 agents spending $11 million on guns and military-style equipment. Veterans Affairs has 3,700 enforcers, with $2.3 million spent on body armor and $200,000 for night-vision equipment, although it had no authorized firearms as recently as 1995.
The Animal and Plant Life Inspection Service spent $4.7 million on military-type equipment, and the Food and Drug Administration was backed up by 183 armed special agents. The Environmental Protection Agency has spent $800 million since 2005 on criminal enforcement. Plants, food, and pollution must be more dangerous than they seem.
Congressional oversight is minimal. There are just too few legislators to follow too many bureaucrats in a confusing multiplicity of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions. In frustration, it has turned over many of its legislative duties to the bureaucracy. It writes vague laws that sound like they will solve problems but leave all the tough details to the agencies. There are only hundreds of laws per year but tens of thousands of regulations issued by the bureaucracy. As Competitive Enterprise Institute government-administration expert Clyde Wayne Crews notes in a new report, executive actions such as Ronald Reagan’s order for presidential review of regulations are essential but cannot take the place of congressional action.
Better legislative and presidential oversight of bureaucratic actions may help, but there simply is no integrity in the bureaucratic performance appraisal system and no incentive to change it. When everyone is rated the same, there is no real evaluation and good work is rewarded the same as bad. A similar situation existed before President Jimmy Carter worked with both parties to pass the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to tighten the appraisal system and relate performance to pay. President Reagan implemented the new law when he came into office in 1981, but it fell apart soon after he left and remains in pieces.
Still, with all those great bureaucrats, what could go wrong?
Only the people: the polls show that a majority of Americans think pretty much like the Brits. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that 22 percent in the U.S. say they are “angry” at the federal government; 57 percent are “frustrated,” and only 18 percent say they are “basically content.” Just 42 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans say the government does a good job of lifting people out of poverty.
Eighty-nine percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats say they can seldom, if ever, trust the federal government. Six in ten say the government needs “very major reform,” up from 37 percent in 1997. Forty percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans say that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.
On the other hand, Americans like their local and state governments. Gallup shows 62 percent trust in state government and 72 percent in local government today, and has repeated found higher levels of support for lower levels of government since it began measuring in 1972.
Maybe it is time for a decentralization revolution in the U.S. too. America may not be as far from Europe as most people believe.
Donald Devine is a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies and the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution. He was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.