The View From 1776

Federal Bureaucracy: Too Big To Fail

Can political liberty survive the aggressive growth of collectivist government?

Tom Emerson emailed me a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by James Taranto regarding the IRS’s actions aimed at blocking conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.  Mr. Taranto concludes :

Abolishing direct taxation [as a way to curb IRS aggression] sounds good to us. But how does one pay for a vast (or even only half-vast) welfare state without it? Abolishing the welfare state sounds good to us too, but even paring it back has proved tough to sell politically. If the welfare state inexorably erodes freedom, that poses a hell of a political problem for those who cherish the latter.

Mr. Emerson asked for my reaction, which is that expansion of the Federal bureaucracy inescapably means diminution of individuals’ political, economic, and social liberties.  People don’t get welfare-state entitlements without paying higher taxes and surrendering some of their freedoms.

Expansion of the Federal bureaucracy means abandoning the 1776 ethos that animated patriots when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, fought the War of Independence, and wrote the Constitution.  A centralized, all-powerful government strips original constitutional powers from states and individuals, transferring those powers to unelected bureaucrats, who, under Obama, have sometimes even ignored Congressional oversight and Federal court rulings.  Ultimately, since most Federal bureaus are part of the executive branch, their growth elevates the president to supreme power, beyond the reach of Congress and the judiciary.

Bureaucrats always lust for more power and prestige.  The peer standing of bureaucracies is measured by the size of their budgets and the numbers of people they employ.  Every bureau, as justification for bigger budgets and more employees, always looks for new tasks to carry out and claims regulatory powers to do so.  Not surprisingly bureaucracy grows larger, with new powers, year by year.

Before the advent of liberal-progressivism, which grew out of the populist movement in the last decades of the 19th century, Federal bureaus were few in number with no noticeable impact on the lives of individual citizens.  Populism, centered in farming states, came to life after the Civil War, responding to growth of giant interstate corporations and railroads that left farmers at the mercy of shipping rates and shipping schedules decreed far away in New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities on the eastern seaboard.  Grassroots political activism against so-called corporate monopolists and Wall Street bankers’ credit policies coincided with the flourishing doctrines of socialism beginning to permeate the Ivy League and other prominent colleges and universities.  The result was the progressive movement.

Progressivism was a blend of Darwinian scientism and elitist belief that only academic experts are capable of disinterested and effective management of government and business.  The Darwinian evolutionary aspect engendered widespread belief in inevitable human progress toward social perfection.  Progressivism promoted voter activism and stronger government as the tools to facilitate humanity’s presumed Darwinian social and political evolution.

Teddy Roosevelt, between 1901 and 1908, began implementing progressivism at the Federal level.  Angered by the traditionalist Constitutional views of his successor William Howard Taft, Teddy bolted the Republican Party and organized the first national Progressive Party, which now is popularly known as the Bull Moose Party.

A few excerpts from TR’s Progressive Party Platform of 1912 establish the tone:

We believe in a graduated inheritance tax as a National means of equalizing the obligations of holders of property to Government…

We favor the ratification of the pending amendment to the Constitution giving the Government power to levy an income tax…

…the people must use their sovereign powers to establish and maintain equal opportunity and industrial justice…

…we advocate bringing under effective national jurisdiction those problems which have expanded beyond reach of the individual States.

…The Progressive party demands such restriction of the power of the courts as shall leave to the people the ultimate authority to determine fundamental questions of social welfare and public policy.

…We demand that the test of true prosperity shall be the benefits conferred thereby on all the citizens, not confined to individuals or classes, and that the test of corporate efficiency shall be the ability better to serve the public; that those who profit by control of business affairs shall justify that profit and that control by sharing with the public the fruits thereof…

To that end we urge the establishment of a strong Federal administrative commission of high standing, which shall maintain permanent active supervision over industrial corporations engaged in inter-State commerce, or such of them as are of public importance, doing for them what the Government now does for the National banks, and what is now done for the railroads by the Inter-State Commerce Commission.

…Germany’s policy of co-operation between government and business has, in comparatively few years, made that nation a leading competitor for the commerce of the world.  (Note that Germany was then the most prominent socialist nation in the world.)

Teddy lost the 1912 election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, a thoroughgoing liberal who added strong momentum to the progressive movement at the Federal level.  Ratification of the 16th Amendment in Wilson’s first year in office established Congress’s power to levy income taxes.  Now Big Government had the financial wherewithal to belay business and the general public.

Wilson had campaigned under the Orwellian Newspeak slogan of New Freedom, to be obtained by passing new legislation and creating new Federal bureaus to reform tariffs, business, and banking.

Wilson was both a liberal-progressive academic scholar and an effective political administrator. Like John Dewey, the foremost liberal-progressive-socialist theoretician of the 20th century, Wilson was an early graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where he fell under the spell of German statist ideas, particularly as articulated by Hegel.  It should be noted that Hegel was the philosopher of historical progress whose doctrine initially inspired Karl Marx and made European intellectuals so quickly receptive to Darwin’s hypothesis of materialistic evolution.

Beginning in the late 1800s Wilson wrote and lectured extensively at universities expounding his theories that the American Constitution was outmoded. He carried those theories into the office of the presidency and to a considerable extent was able to impose them upon the nation. Briefly, in keeping with Darwinian evolutionary doctrine and prevailing liberal-progressive ideas of the day, Wilson believed that Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, and members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were altogether wrong in their emphasis upon individual rights (see Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, by Ronald J. Pestritto). The need was for greater concentration of power and increased administrative efficiency in the Federal government, which necessarily meant diminishing individual rights.

Since the founding era, Wilson asserted, Hegelian historical forces had created a new society. The United States had come together into a unified whole in which there were no longer the individualistic competing interests among political and economic factions. The founders’ Constitutional checks and balances, particularly states rights under the Bill of Rights’ Tenth Amendment, had in the 20th century become impediments to government’s administrative efficiency. Needed was a clear field for liberal-progressive administrative experts to implement new political and economic policies as they saw fit, without interference from Congress.

During his academic career, and before becoming governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, Wilson had advocated appointing all Federal cabinet ministers from among members of Congress, in the British parliamentary fashion. Such ministers, Wilson thought, would both be able to influence public sentiment, and able to hammer out policy measures during active participation in the legislative process. Congress, in British Parliamentary fashion, would become the dominant branch of government. Combining it with the presidency would enable government leaders to do almost anything they believed necessary to add to “efficiency” in controlling the populace.

This, of course, was in diametric opposition to the hard-won experience of the founders who crafted the Constitution. As Madison and Hamilton wrote extensively in the Federalist papers, individual rights of all varieties, especially property rights, would be too vulnerable to mob sentiment, to the tyranny of the majority, without multiple checks and balances to prevent concentration of too much political power in one person or group.

After gaining political office, Wilson changed his views somewhat. The drive toward augmented administrative efficiency remained, but Wilson began to realize that the most practical route toward that goal was bolstering the powers of the presidency. To that end, during his presidency, Wilson added many governmental regulatory agencies and increased their regulatory power to impose de facto law via issuance of regulations without Congressional review. Among the most consequential of these agencies was the Federal Reserve System, established in 1913. Today’s arbitrary regulations by the EPA, for example, are Wilson’s liberal-progressive progeny.

Wilson’s liberal-progressive elitism underlies our present-day, we-know-what’s-best-for-you nanny state, exemplified in President Obama’s and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2010 ramrodding of Obamacare over the strong objections of the majority of voters.

The only thing standing in the path of bureaucracies is the individual freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  Hence liberal-progressives’ ceaseless thrust to restrict those liberties and to broaden the definition of initial powers granted by Congress to regulatory bureaucracies.  The contest is becoming an unequal one, as new generations, imbued with socialism in our schools and ignorant of our history, increasingly favor the fancied security offered by Big Brother.