Bums and Bureaucrats
The expansion of federal power has brought with it a vast increase in the federal payroll, and America's citizens are paying the price in the form of confiscatory taxation.
“Throw the bums out!” That’s the perennially popular prescription for curing what ails us at the ballot box. Problem is, it’ll never work. We could not only throw out every congressman, senator, governor and president, we could abolish their offices, too, so successors even more mercenary, mendacious and meddlesome can’t harm us.
Yet we’d still suffer most of our current maladies.
That’s because politicians aren’t as influential as they pretend. Certainly, they set dangerous policies and rates of theft — sorry, taxation — pass unconstitutional legislation, and exploit their positions to demagogue and fear-monger. But bad as the damage is, far more assails us from the legions lurking behind the elected bozos: the unelected busybodies of America’s bureaucratic regime.
Yes, Congress charters the various bureaucracies. But thereafter it seldom controls them: agencies largely govern themselves thanks to the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. Even rarer is Republicans and Democrats uniting to rid us of a bureaucracy — however useless, abusive or downright criminal the agency grows.
Consider the Transportation Security Administration. One of its godfathers, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), blasted his creation to the magazine Human Events earlier this year. “The whole program has been hijacked by bureaucrats,” thundered this politician on his tenth Congressional term. Ahem: what else did he expect? “It mushroomed into an army … It’s gone from a couple-billion-dollar enterprise to close to $9 billion,” yet “they’ve failed to actually detect any threat in 10 years.” And that’s despite thoroughly, brutally groping Grandma.
About 500 federal bureaucracies plague us, depending on how one defines them (would we count Amtrak? Given that it has never once managed to break even in its 40 years, let alone earn a profit, I vote we do). Add the thousands of state and local agencies, and it’s no wonder we feel Big Brother's hand throttling every area of life.
As of 2009, the federal bureaucracy employed around 2.8 million people, exclusive of the armed forces (which add another 3 million between regular and reserve troops). But some experts argue that’s a false figure: Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute contends that if we include “grantees” and contractors, the actual number of federal hires looking to us for their paychecks approaches 20 million.
Unfortunately, bureaucracies at the state and local levels have kept pace, especially since the 1970s. That’s when Congress realized it could “solve” problems by forcing states to found — and fund — programs. Such regional pencil-pushers add another 19 million or so to the public servants the public serves.
It’s anyone’s guess exactly what percentage of our taxes supports these 39 million desk-jockeys: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) wailed last March, “We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing…The executive branch doesn't know. The congressional branch doesn't know. Nobody knows."
One of the largest federal bureaucracies, the Department of Defense, “requested” $670.9 billion for FY 2012 (“preparation” of that “request” alone cost us $38,000). Meanwhile, a relatively tiny agency like the Office of the Inspector General at the Small Business Administration contents itself with only $19.42 million for FY2012 (out of the $985 million the SBA demands overall).
Tragically, that’s merely the beginning. Regulations notoriously add to production’s expenses since they siphon resources from benefits customers desire — and will pay for — to features bureaucrats prefer — though not enough to buy with their own money. The Office of Management and Budget estimated in its 2011 Report to Congress that just 18 of the thousands of such “rules were estimated to result in a total of … $6.5 billion to $12.5 billion in annual costs.”
Only 50 bureaucrats pestered the new nation in 1789. But during the late 19th century, Americans studying economics in Germany admired Otto von Bismarck’s authoritarian administration — perhaps because it employed so many “experts” like them. They returned home determined to create such positions for themselves.
Their ambition dovetailed with the Progressive philosophy then conquering the country. Progressives replaced the traditional American pantheon of God, Mom, and Freedom with Government, Experts, and Regulation. They shamelessly decreed that “ordinary” people couldn’t manage their lives and that the educated elite should do it for them. Or as Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt put it, “I don’t know what the people think, I only know what they should think.”
Unfortunately, the US Constitution protected everyone’s rights, even those of “ordinary” citizens, and severely curtailed the elite’s power, especially in office. That earned the highest law of the land Progressives’ open disdain: “[Limited government] is a bit of outworn academic doctrine,” Roosevelt announced while campaigning in 1912.
His fellow Progressive, Woodrow Wilson, agreed. He dismissed the Constitution as a “straitjacket” and favored radically revising it while condemning its ideas to history’s dustbin: “[Thomas] Jefferson … said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible…. But that time is passed. America is not now and cannot in the future be a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.”
The Constitution deliberately hindered the passing of legislation with a cumbersome, lengthy process. Thereby would it save Americans from extensive and complex codes like those strangling France, where the regulations for manufacturing textiles alone consumed four volumes of 2,200 pages and three supplements.
But Progressives purposely overturned that. They wanted to “streamline” government for greater “efficiency” — rich irony given the modern use of “bureaucracy” as a synonym for “inefficiency and waste.” And so they replaced the Constitution’s anemic state with an active, very centralized one, where even a single agency could pass more laws — renamed “regulations” — in a day than Congress could in a year.
Victims of this new, improved government bitterly protested. They pointed out that the Constitution never authorizes Congress to “delegate” its legislative power; in fact, Article 1, Section 8 specifies that only Congress shall “make all Laws…necessary and proper for carrying into Execution…all other Powers vested by this Constitution…in any Department…” It took the Supreme Court decades to silence such opposition — not with constitutional logic but by simply ruling against it.
Politicians come and politicians go, but agencies rule forever. Along with the bums, we must toss the bureaucracies, too.
Image Credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/HacksHaven