In February 2017, Steve Bannon—at the time, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist—made something of a splash at the Conservative Political Action Conference when he identified the third of the Trump Administration’s three core “lines of work,” after national sovereignty and economic nationalism, as the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
The media and its taskmasters in the intelligentsia and universities were at once horrified and baffled. Deconstruction is all well and good in English departments, and (more broadly) when the things being deconstructed are “white privilege” and Western civilization. But something as sacred as the state? How dare he! And what’s with the qualifier? Aren’t all “states” in some sense “administrative”?
That confusion launched a thousand “explainer” articles, none of which got the answer even remotely correct (not that they were intended to). The other thing notable by its absence was the name of John Marini.
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Marini didn’t coin the term “administrative state”; that was political scientist Dwight Waldo in his 1948 book of the same name. But there can be little doubt that the phrase wouldn’t have escaped Bannon’s lips if not for Marini. No one—certainly not Waldo—has done more to explain what the administrative state is, how it works, and how it came to be. And not just in the historical sense, though Marini does show how the apparatus was built, by whom, and for what purpose. But his far greater contribution is to lay bare its theoretical roots. Plumbing those depths requires both a first-class education as well as practical experience in the swamp, both of which Marini has. In the 1980s, he served as a special assistant to then-Chairman Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before returning to academia and writing and editing essential books on the federal budget process and the separation of powers from his perch at the University of Nevada, Reno.
And now, finally, one on the animating interest of his entire career. Unmasking the Administrative State—ably edited and introduced by Ken Masugi, Marini’s friend, fellow student, and former co-worker at the EEOC—is actually a collection of Marini’s writings over 40 years, but its themes, messages and lessons are remarkably consistent. And, to some of us, familiar.
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, I had already been reading (and listening to) Marini for more than 20 years. His analysis of the insidious ways the administrative state undermines democratic politics prepared me to begin to understand the populist revolt against bipartisan orthodoxy.
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Our opinion-making class, by contrast, thrashed about for explanations. How can this man say these things? Why are so many people listening? What’s the common thread, if any? The term one saw bandied about was “source code,” as in, “We must find the source code of Trumpism.” While most elites insisted that Trump was simply winging it, making things up as he went along, a few intuited that there might be—out there somewhere—a body of ideas (though they were quick to add: not any with which Trump himself was personally familiar!) that could explain the appeal of his candidacy. They were right, but they did not know where to look.
I didn’t have to look; the source code found me. Shortly after Trump took his famous escalator ride, Marini began sending long, erudite, profound emails to a select few. They appeared in the inbox as giant walls of text, hardly any (if any at all) paragraph breaks—just words, words, words. To begin reading did not in any way alleviate the anxiety. It’s not that the missives were rambling but precisely that they were not. They were so dense and closely reasoned that every line, every word demanded complete attention. It soon became clear that Marini had it all figured out before the rest of us had tied our shoes. Yet he steadfastly refused to take any kind of public bow.
In the heat of the primary season a few intellectual insurgents and I started a pseudonymous blog called the Journal of American Greatness, which was broadly pro-Trump, or at least pro-Trumpism, which we took it upon ourselves to define. I secured Marini’s permission to post (under the name “Cato the Elder”) two of his emails. They were almost certainly the most intellectually challenging of all the content on JAG—which is saying something, since the rest of us more than occasionally let our grad seminar freak flags fly. They were also among the most popular.
Portions of them appear, expanded and reworked, in Unmasking the Administrative State. But this is not a book about Trump—not directly anyway. With all due respect to the president, it’s much bigger than that. This is a philosophic book about the grounding, conditions, functions, ends, and means of politics. You’re more likely to encounter Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, or Auguste Comte than Donald Trump.
Taken together, Marini’s essays provide the finest available account of so-called “rational historicism” and its consequences. Inaugurated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, more fully developed by G.W.F. Hegel, and consummated by Alexandre Kojève, this school of thought replaces fixed human nature with the notion of man’s consciousness evolving rationally through the historical process to its ultimate endpoint. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rational historicism faced a withering critique from its irrational younger half-brother—crystalized in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger—which holds that history never ends and has no point. But, as Marini shows, the older brother survived and still rules. The administrative state is its actualization—its malevolent word made flesh.
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The true subject of this book, then, is “regime change,” how we got from “there”—our founders’ understanding of justice, morality, and politics—to “here”: the tradition-and-history-destroying, common-good-denying, anarcho-tyrannical, pathologically altruistic dystopian oligarchy currently throttling the West. In a way, Unmasking the Administrative State is the perfect companion to 2017’s The Political Theory of the American Founding by Thomas G. West, Marini’s fellow student at the Claremont Graduate School in the late 1960s when Leo Strauss taught there and Harry Jaffa was in his prime. West’s book explains the founders’ principles; Marini’s their repudiation. Read together, the two books convey the grandeur of the founders’ (and Abraham Lincoln’s) accomplishments and leave one saddened and bewildered by their loss. How could we let such a glorious inheritance go? Why did our elites and a growing portion of the populace come to despise it all?
For the United States is not now, and has not been for some time, a constitutional republic as the founders and their heirs understood that term. As Marini shows, the administrative state is not merely unconstitutional; it is anti-constitutional. Leo Strauss identified the essence of constitutionalism as the practical reconciliation of wisdom and consent. Because wisdom can be approached but never achieved, the consent of the governed is required to preserve man’s natural freedom in the face of wisdom’s limitations. Hence, Strauss writes, the best and most stable foundation for political order is
that a wise legislator frame a code which the citizen body, duly persuaded, freely adopts. That code, which is, as it were, the embodiment of wisdom, must be as little subject to alteration as possible; the rule of law is to take the place of the rule of men, however wise.
Make “legislator” plural and you have a fine description of the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution.
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The administrative state dismisses all this, declares itself wise, and dispenses with consent. On a functional level, it steamrolls the separation of powers, ignores the limits set by the enumeration of powers, and further rejects any limits either to government’s means or ends. Jealous and unwilling to tolerate rivals, it centralizes power unto itself, enervating state and local governments and destroying civil and religious institutions. These practical consequences flow inexorably from the administrative state’s animating theory, which is a root-and-branch rejection of nature—especially of human nature—in favor of “science,” “history” and “freedom.”
The sneer quotes are necessary, because in all cases the words within have taken on entirely new meanings. “Science” has gone from being synonymous with philosophy to its antithesis and superior: allegedly exact rather than imprecise, authoritative rather than questioning, hubristic rather than humble, instrumental rather than theoretical. “Science” occasionally feigns humility and admits that it doesn’t quite yet know everything, but it’s also confident that anything it does not or cannot understand is either irrelevant or not knowledge.
“History” no longer refers to the record, or an account, of the past—of deeds, events, human choices, greatness, mediocrity, baseness—but is seen as a process that, in a sense, replaces God and nature. Times change, and therefore man and his principles and institutions must change with the times. This has always been partly true, of course. But the older understanding knew that a permanent ground underlay the changing currents, and so men used prudence to apply their knowledge of the permanent to guide themselves through the ephemeral. “History” rejects the permanent ground, leaving prudence with nothing to do.
The new science and history purport to expand greatly man’s freedom by opening up new vistas that vastly extend the horizon. But this “freedom” proves illusory. In the older understanding, freedom consists primarily of steering the ship of state via public deliberation. It was accepted that man cannot fully control or determine his destiny, but also believed that he can shape it by applying prudential judgment to identify and implement effective means to secure just and rightful ends, which are supplied by nature. The new understanding doesn’t merely outsource prudence’s job; it automates it. Science becomes history’s handmaiden, supplying means for achieving the latter’s ends. Subjects once open for debate become closed as science supposedly discovers the workings of History with a capital H. There is no politics because there is nothing for man to deliberate or choose. Science has spoken, and everyone better get on the “right side of History.” Man turns out to be far more enslaved to “History” in the new understanding than he was limited by nature in the old.
The administrative state, then, is the apparatus that applies the alleged insights of science to the governance of man. But “applies” is such a mild word for what it actually does, how it really works, what it really is. And that, Marini shows, is exactly the soft despotism about which Alexis de Tocqueville warned.
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Yet, as he further shows, that warning was insufficient. Ultimately, Tocqueville looked to History rather than nature and thus was unwilling or unable to take seriously the American Founders’ argument that they had found a way to resolve—in theory no less than in practice—the apparent tension between equality and liberty. Marini gives Tocqueville his due for seeing modern democracy’s inherent tendency to degenerate into administrative tyranny. Yet—unlike so many of Tocqueville’s admirers—Marini firmly, if gently, refuses to let the Frenchman off the hook for his unwitting contribution to that tyranny. Appeals to “History” only feed and strengthen the beast. The only way out, Marini shows, is a return to nature as the basis for the good and for political right. Tocqueville denied such a return was possible, and so, despite his prescient and terrifying insight, the very tyranny he most feared is now our master.
Everyone knows about the federal bureaucracy’s supernova-like growth in the 20th century. Marini puts that growth in context—not merely or even primarily in size but more fundamentally in power. He is especially merciless on Congress, which voluntarily and happily surrendered its own constitutionally enumerated powers to an unconstitutional fourth branch—the bureaucracy housed within the executive branch—which looks upon its nominal master with indifference or bemused contempt.
Every government of course needs executive agencies; politics is about making decisions, and decisions must be implemented. That said, to what ends do executive agencies work? How are those ends determined and by whom? What is the source of those agencies’ political legitimacy? What—if any—limits are placed on their power? And the decisive question: who controls them and by what means?
The ends of our government are no longer determined by the people through public deliberation constrained by moral and natural limits; nor are they even to give the people what they want regardless of those limits. They are rather to force upon the people what “science,” the research universities and public intellectuals have determined they should want. Since these “discoveries” are held to be “scientific” and therefore incontrovertible, limits on administrative power are not merely unnecessary but harmful. When you know what’s right and necessary, why wait? Why let yourself be held up by mere procedural hurdles, or worse, by the contentless objections of the ignorant?
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The bureaucrats who operate the machinery of the administrative state are, for the most part, merely crew. The pilots are those whom some (though not Marini) have taken to calling the “deep state.” But a simpler name for them is Angelo Codevilla’s “ruling class”: the people who revolve in and out of senior government, and lucrative private sector, positions; run the hedge funds, big banks and other corporations; set the tone and agenda for all society; and tell the administrative state what to do, either directly or indirectly. One might say that the deep state and the administrative state are a kind of coalition or partnership, though the former is most definitely the senior partner.
The bureaucrats, their bosses, and their cultural cheerleaders are prone to delusional thinking in order to mask, even to themselves, the essential self-interestedness of their rule. They all insist that the administrative state is nonpartisan and impartial. These are patriotic career civil servants just doing their jobs, goes the refrain whenever the administrative state does something that may seem, on the surface, partisan, anti-democratic, or punitive. And—as I can attest from having worked within the administrative state—many, even most, of its operatives are indeed just doing their jobs. The problem is not that administrative functionaries are cynical; it is precisely that they are so earnest. They “know” that their motives are pure, their conclusions disinterested and “scientific,” their means necessary for our own good. It’s no wonder, then, that neither the administrative state’s assertions nor its rulings are open to debate. It admits of no legitimate opposition and so tolerates none. As Marini explains:
[T]he bureaucracies have developed the instinct for self-preservation at all costs. They do not, however, defend themselves on the basis of self-interest. Rather, they see themselves as defenders of institutional rationality, as a part of the social intelligence that establishes the legitimacy of rule within the administrative state.
The whole intelligentsia—the media, academia, intellectuals, columnists, pundits, artists, comedians, show-runners and executive producers, authors of airport bookshop bestsellers—all agree and hammer the message home. They know they are right. You merely believe, and mere belief has no place whatsoever in the making of public policy. Thus the entire phalanx locks shields when some part of the people has the impudence to question its narrative and rises in fury when anyone questions its authority.
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Much of this will sound like James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941). Although Burnham and Marini begin from different places, it’s fair to say that, on this score, they end up more or less adjacent. A theme worthy of further exploration is the vast amount of common ground that exists between the pre-collaborationist Right and today’s philosophically-grounded pro-Trump, or Trump-sympathetic, conservatism. Indeed, the differences that Marini elaborates with Burnham in this volume have nothing to do with high principle but concern merely the practical question of Congress’s fate vis-à-vis the rising administrative state. Burnham argued that Congress would either reassert itself or die. Marini shows that Congress instead became a handmaiden.
In perhaps the book’s most extraordinary chapter, Marini illustrates his point with a wholly new (at least to my eyes) interpretation of Watergate. In his account, Watergate was indeed—as conventional wisdom insists—the most serious constitutional crisis in our history (so far), but not for the reasons usually assumed. Richard Nixon’s real sin was not abuse of power but his serious constitutional challenge to the administrative state. Marini quotes Henry Kissinger:
[Nixon] had been reelected by a landslide in 1972 in a contest as close to being fought on ideological issues as is possible in America…. The American people for once had chosen on philosophical grounds, not on personality.
Marini then makes clear what Kissinger leaves out: the “ideological issues” and “philosophical grounds” included not just America’s approach to Communism, nor even simply control of executive branch agencies, but the very (il)legitimacy of the administrative state. Eight years as vice president and four as president had demonstrated beyond doubt to Nixon that the bureaucracy runs the government for its own purposes, without the consent of the people. He further understood that the administrative state (though he didn’t use the term) both concentrated power in Washington, away from states and local communities, and that the executive agencies he was elected to control and which, on the flow chart, reported to him were (and remain) in fact independent of electoral, or political, control. So he made the agenda of his second term to diffuse much of Washington’s power and restore executive control over the remainder.
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This the administrative state could not abide. Congress by this point had completed the transformation of itself “from primarily a legislative body to an administrative oversight body.” It saw, counterintuitively but correctly, Nixon’s threat to curtail the power of executive branch agencies as a threat to its own power, to its own new role in the administrative regime.
Granted, Nixon foolishly handed his enemies the gun with which to shoot him. But, for Marini, that was mere pretense:
Nearly every political scandal in American politics has been transformed into a legal one in order to expose and reveal guilt as violation of law. It is fought out in the public, or political arena, on legal grounds to establish culpability, again with reference to the law. If successful, it is justified as upholding the rule of law. Although it provides clarity in terms of simplifying the issues in a manner suitable for presentation to a mass public, it often obscures the deeper, or more fundamental, problems that give rise to the necessity of political scandal.
The parallels to today are obvious. President Trump has not handed his administrative state enemies the gun with which to shoot him, but no matter; they have 3-D printers and so made their own: the ridiculous “dossier” and the “collusion” narrative that 18 months, dozens of prosecutors and investigators, and $25 million have not been able to substantiate in any way. The same agencies that leaked to take down Nixon are leaking to take down Trump, and for the same reason. As Marini puts it:
Watergate was not a partisan affair in the ordinary sense, nor was it simply a legal controversy. Rather, it was an institutional struggle between the political branches of government. Such an event could not but be political.
And, more ominously:
Republican presidents, at times representing national majorities opposed to the expansion of government, and Democratic Congresses organized around private interests in support of its expansion, became rival forces to an extent incompatible with the pursuit of a long-term public interest.
Except this time it’s worse. The conspiracy to unseat the president began before he was even elected; the pretense was made up out of whole cloth; the agencies aren’t bothering to conceal or dress up their agenda; and the tidal wave of misinformation utterly shameless despite the transparent phoniness of it. Most depressing of all: our best and brightest have met this new attempt to overturn the result of a democratic election either with loud cheers or a collective shrug. Other commentators, whose hearts are in the right place, have called this the biggest political scandal in American history. Lord knows it should be. But it manifestly isn’t, at least not in public perception, which, with respect to scandal, is everything.
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Even more disgraceful, though, are the former “conservatives” egging all this on. As the ever insouciant, newly woke Bill Kristol tweeted: “If it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.” No clearer evisceration of principle, self-righteously announced in the name of principle, could be imagined. This is what so much of the conservative movement has been reduced to: active collaboration with the Left to overturn democratic elections in the name of democracy. Despite the glaring hypocrisy and idiocy, it’s all too sordid to elicit even a mirthless laugh.
But it should not have been surprising (though I admit to having been surprised). Marini explains the essential convergence of “Right” and Left under historicist philosophy and administrative state rule:
[B]oth parties have participated in recognizing the legitimacy of the cultural narrative established by postmodern theory—and enforced by political correctness—as the ground of understanding civil society, public policy, law, and bureaucracy itself. Before the end of the twentieth century, contemporary politics had created an equilibrium agreed on by both parties and underwritten by the intellectual authority of positivism and historicism.
In other words, Trump’s voters saw intuitively what the entire political class missed. And they wanted a choice, not an echo.
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I said that this book is not about Trump. And yet it is. Marini explained Trump, the rise of Trump, the need for Trump, well before the escalator ride that inaugurated his candidacy. The need for Trump begins from the recognition that
America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption, and its inability to defend any kind of tradition—or way of life derived from that tradition—because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites. This sweeping cultural transformation occurred almost completely outside the political process of mobilizing public opinion and political majorities. The American people themselves did not participate or consent to the wholesale undermining of their way of life, which government and the bureaucracy helped to facilitate by undermining those institutions of civil society that were dependent upon a public defense of the old morality.
Our elites “deny the seriousness of the crisis and see Trump himself as the greatest danger.” Because he is—to them. Or more precisely, to their hitherto uncontested rule and total exemption from any accountability for their failures. Before Trump, writes Marini,
there had been no honest evaluation of Washington that originated in Washington: no policy ever really fails, private corruption never rises to the level of public corruption (let alone is punished), no officeholder of significance has been held personally responsible for their behavior since Watergate. Ironically, it has taken a reality television star—one who knows the difference between the real and the imagined—to make reality a political issue with respect to Washington. Indeed, in recent years, Washington has presented itself as a kind of reality show. It is difficult to distinguish what is real from the way it is spun. Benghazi was just one example of the unwillingness of the Washington establishment to denounce deception in a political matter. Trump was willing to denounce the deception by passing personal judgment on those policies, personalities, and issues, and he was willing to judge them as personally accountable.
Can’t have that!
But the crisis is real, and our elites are too arrogant, venal, greedy, blinkered, and stupid to resolve it. All they can do is tenaciously cling to their power and privilege. How long their reign may last, how it might end, and what comes after are large and vital questions. Those inclined toward gloom on this score may find their spirits lifted by Marini’s implicit reminder that if there is nature—the nature historicists deny—then sooner or later their utopian project will bump up against natural limits. Nature will reassert itself against anti-nature. New possibilities will arise.
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Some on the right sympathetic to Marini’s thought will say (as I have heard it said) that this is all well and good, but how does talking about the administrative state possibly help fight the barbarians storming the gates? Philosophy requires leisure, which is not to be indulged in the midst of crisis. I do not at all doubt or deny the severity of the crisis. But I absolutely believe that it’s better to understand its roots than not. In fact, “winning” requires understanding, which requires studying arguments that on the surface appear not to be urgent. The order of battle of spiritual warfare is multitudinous. We need bloggers, meme-makers, Twitter trolls, street artists, comedians, propagandists, theologians, playwrights, essayists, novelists, hacks, flaks, and intellectuals (among others). But behind, underneath, and above them all is the philosopher. If the foundational arguments are wrong, everything else will be wrong. Besides, it’s essential to get the argument right for no other reason than if future generations ever get a chance to rebuild, they will need to understand our mistakes in order to avoid them.
Though Marini seldom directly weighs in on the pressing issues of our time, when he does so indirectly, he arms those engaged in the struggle with the strongest possible reasons for, and arguments to defend, our convictions. For example, he writes:
America has often been called a nation of immigrants, as if that is what has distinguished it among the nations of the earth. But every human society that did not spring full-blown from the soil with a common identity is a nation of strangers, or immigrants, who were somehow united in civic friendship. Some nations with long histories have forgotten their origins, or what it was that made it possible to distinguish themselves from others. The problem of immigration, therefore, is unintelligible in the absence of an understanding of what it is that constitutes the ground of unity or common identity. Any human association that considers itself as separate or distinct from other political societies—or, in modern times, one which considers itself sovereign—must make distinctions between those who are citizens and those who are not.
That paragraph says, at once, nothing and everything about the crisis at our southern border. In its density and gravity are the deepest reasons why objections to the ruling class’s insistence on open borders are legitimate and moral, despite the tidal wave of propaganda angrily shouting the contrary.
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Others may complain that Marini can be hard to read. I am tempted to reply that you either enjoy this sort of thing or you don’t. But maybe that’s too glib. Marini himself is anything but glib. Reading his sober, elevated prose is to be reminded that, when it comes to the most important things, true understanding is incompatible with neutrality.
I must warn, however, that the book can be repetitive. Phrases, sentences—in a few cases, even whole paragraphs—reappear. But allowance must be made for a body of work written over a lifetime arising from the same wells of study and concern. That Marini has not—unlike so many who pass for “conservatives” today—flitted from one contradictory preoccupation to the next redounds to his credit. This is a man who understands both the shifting tectonic plates and the core underneath.
I do, however, wish that more prefatory material had been included to introduce each chapter, explaining the original setting and context of each essay. Although not necessary in order to get the big picture, it might have helped with the details.
In the book’s preface, Masugi recalls giving Clarence Thomas one of the articles now reprinted in Unmasking the Administrative State. The copy came back with a demand scrawled at the top: “I must see Marini!!” If I may update the entreaty for 2019 and beyond: We must read Marini!!