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The Dawn of Big Government and the Administrative State

New book correctly diagnoses how non-elected agencies are running the country, but falls short on how it got this way.
FDR nomination

Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century, John Marini, Encounter Books, 337 pages

John Marini, who writes for the Claremont Review of Books and is a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, has devoted his newest book to the origins and growth of the American administrative state. Marini recognizes that he is dealing with a critical turning point in American government. To his credit, he refuses to examine it nonchalantly, as the natural development of a benevolent state that exists as an indispensable answer to our needs. According to Marini, rule by unelected administrators who are empowered to intervene in a wide range of human relations, to regulate the behavior of citizens and to enforce their own values, was not part of our original political design. It represents a dramatic departure from what our federal union was intended to be, and a deviant model that may already be beyond our control.

As someone who wrote a book on a related subject, I was eager to learn how Marini treated the growth of centralized public administration in the United States. It may be appropriate to divide his analysis into two sections—one that shows how our administrative behemoth has eaten into social, cultural, and commercial activities; and another that focuses on the ideological preconditions for that development. His book in my view addresses the first better than the second.

Marini begins by examining the role of the federal government in helping to topple the Nixon administration, a topic that he’s treated before. He argues compellingly that by “the time of Nixon’s reelection in 1972, he posed the greatest danger to the authority of the bureaucracy and the administrative state.” Unlike Reagan, who also awakened the deep state’s “political animosity” but who managed to appear jovial, Nixon went after them with undisguised loathing. He stressed in his second inaugural address his intention to “diffuse” political power among various levels of government. His downfall, at least partly caused by his impetuous behavior, signaled to office-holders the danger of messing with powerful foes. Now Trump has broken with that unwritten rule and incurred the wrath of our unelected government and its far-ranging allies in the media, public education, and Hollywood. Anyone who threatens what Marini calls the “new despotism” posed by centralized administration runs the risk of being destroyed by it.

Marini is correct that the Progressives played a gigantic role in justifying and building an American administrative state. But he may go too far in indulging his own grievance about Progressives being racists, anti-immigrationists, and social Darwinists—which is largely beside the point in any case. What made the Progressives a significant historical force was not that they held conventional views for their times. It was that, as Marini certainly knows, they identified popular government with public administration and a “science of government.” And contrary to what the GOP media tell us, self-described Progressives belonged to and influenced both national parties.

Seemingly unaware of this, the author devotes an entire chapter to a questionable divide between FDR’s political legacy and that of Ronald Reagan. Whereas FDR favored an administrative regime “that would guarantee social and economic security for all,” Reagan, as Marini put it elsewhere“succeeded in mobilizing a powerful sentiment over the excesses of big government. In doing so, he revived the debate over the importance of limited government for a free society. And his theme would remain constant throughout his presidency.” But did Reagan’s rhetoric about “limited government” mean that he set out to reverse FDR’s reforms? Guess again! Marini’s model president mostly took for granted a vast administrative apparatus that he inherited from his predecessor. And this welfare state intruded into our daily lives to a far greater extent than the government bequeathed to posterity by the New Deal.

The Social Security program begun by FDR continued to grow under Reagan, expanding 15 percent during his eight years in office. Despite initial efforts to apply strict means tests to welfare recipients, the Reagan administration increased welfare costs by 25 percent between 1981 and 1987. There is, of course, nothing wrong with recognizing that both national parties have inherited a swollen administrative state and that it’s been hard to cut back without alienating large numbers of voters and an entrenched bureaucracy. But let’s not pretend that Reagan was a bold anti-New Deal revolutionary when the evidence for this hardly exists. A point that Marini might have mentioned is that in the early 1980s, most Western countries slowed the expansion of their social services, an expansion that had been going on since the 1960s. In the United States, this slowdown began during the latter half of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and continued at a brisker pace in 1981 and 1982.

Marini’s learned account of how we arrived at our present government, one that “administers” rather than deliberates, as the Founding Fathers hoped our federal legislature would do, reveals wide-ranging erudition. But he might have spared us his practice of repeating all the talking points of his colleagues at the Claremont Institute. Supposedly no one, including many defenders of Abraham Lincoln, understood as well as Harry Jaffa and Jaffa’s students the natural rights basis of the American regime and indeed all decent governments. Lincoln fought the Civil War to realize the Claremont Institute’s vision of American government, while rejecting alternative understandings of who we are as a nation.

Marini maintains that in Hegel’s philosophy, individual rights vanish into the “rational will of the state.” In the book’s introduction, Ken Masugi lets us know (lest we miss the point) that the author is carrying forward the philosophical tradition of Jaffa, “who took account of the radical assaults on constitutional government demanded by Rousseau and above all, Hegel.” Pace Marini and Jaffa, Hegel’s main political work, Philosophy of Right, defends the force of individual contracts and the inviolable existence of civil society. Hegel’s vindication of historical rights and the “ethical state” does not come at the expense of property or family rights. Marini’s fellow Straussian (although not of the West Coast persuasion) Steven B. Smith makes this argument quite cogently in Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism: Rights in Context.

Marini also quotes Progressive theorists who tell us that rights are the products of particular historical traditions. It is strongly suggested that these commentators were morally or intellectually defective. With few exceptions, however, they were telling us what is obvious about the evolution of political rights. According to Marini, “contemporary ideology and politics become intelligible only with reference to a philosophy of history, which originated in the political thought of Kant and Hegel.” As someone who has written on both German philosophy and the administrative state, I am truly puzzled by this statement. Am I supposed to think that German philosophers, who failed to adopt Marini’s view of natural rights, brought about our runaway public administration? Some Progressives like John Dewey read Hegel (and also Kant) but did so selectively in order to confirm what they already believed about “democratic administration.”

Marini gets one point perfectly right, and it is his main one. He cites German political theorist Carl Schmitt about “the crisis of German parliamentary government” in order to buttress his key point, that legislatures have been forced into doing what they were not meant to do. For Schmitt, this fact illustrated the ultimate weakness of the interwar German experiment in parliamentary government. What was intended to be a deliberative body, namely the Reichstag, was, according to Schmitt, pushed into performing a different function because of an often indecisive executive. (Schmitt was famously arguing for a presidential dictatorship to save the German republic from its enemies.)

In the American case, as Marini points out, Congress in its present incarnation oversees administration and makes business deals by leveraging its influence with the public bureaucracy. Rather than serving as a deliberative body, it has become a deal-making one. The rise to power of the modern administrative state under technical congressional oversight has led to this undesirable arrangement. Let me repeat: Marini is dead on in his analysis of “legislative bureaucratic supremacy.” He is correct when he argues that our main problem at the federal level is not the abandonment of power by Congress. The real problem is that we are being technically “administered” by congressional agencies that run roughshod over our historic liberties. Even more alarming is that there may be no way out of this situation. 

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.