The following is extracted from remarks delivered in response to a paper by John Adams Wettergreen—dealing with the subject of his review above—at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association an August 31, 1986, in Washington, D.C.
What is wrong with our government today? As Wettergreen tells it, the government wants to administer the details of everyday life from Congressional subcommittees in Washington. The Republicans, especially the Republican leadership in the Congress, are part of the problem.1 David Stockman sided with Congress against the explicit position of the administration, but with the implicit approval of many Republicans in Congress and in the executive branch. Anne Burford, who sided with the public position of the Administration, was punished by Congress and abandoned by Reagan and his staff. What does this all mean?
First, it means that the Congress is running the country, as in a way it always has, but with far more openness and less lawfulness than ever before, or at least since Reconstruction. The creation of the massive, centrally administered welfare state was called for by Woodrow Wilson; and a few tentative movements in that direction were implemented by Franklin Roosevelt. But the assassination of John Kennedy and the legislative skills of Lyndon Johnson were the key factors leading to its true emergence in the Great Society. Vast power was turned over to numerous agencies of the Federal government, power that was often granted lawlessly in the sense that Congress did not lay down the rules that these agencies were to implement. These agencies and programs are dependent on Congressional funding and mandates.
This new scheme of things was solidified in the early 70s at the end of Nixon’s weakened presidency. It was not challenged during the weak presidencies of Ford and Carter. By 1981, when Reagan took office, any attempt to change things would have involved a massive fight with the Congress. Reagan has consistently avoided that, with the results epitomized in the stories of Stockman and Burford.2
Moreover, the Congressional order, at least from the beginning of the 60s, has had valuable allies in the press, the universities, and the courts. All the leading respectable authorities supported (and still support) centralized bureaucracy run by Congress. These authorities attack, in the spirit of a lynch mob, anyone who appears capable of challenging this order fundamentally. The fact that the press has been relatively kind to, e.g., the neoconservatives and the “moderates” who make up nearly the entire Reagan administration, is because, as Wettergreen points out, the latter have not pushed for the repeal of the Great Society bureaucratization or challenged congressional control of the bureaucracy. All these “reformers” care about, as Wettergreen notes of Stockman and Burford, is that the centrally administered state be more efficient or cost-effective.
Likewise the “supply siders,” who are often the same neoconservatives, support a more rational tax structure (for example, they are proponents of the recently enacted lower tax rates), but they do not care much about the kind of centralized government that is now in place. So we have a government that eagerly meddles in the details of everyday life of citizens and businesses all over the country, but which is incapable of truly governing, that is, deliberating on and laying down public rules about large matters of general public concern.
I would add to Wettergreen’s analysis that there is a consistent pattern to the bureaucratic state of the 70s and 80s. The policies pursued and enforced by Congress and its agencies are more consistent than they look. Implicit (and occasionally explicit) in these actions is a coherent view of man and government. To see what that view is, it is worth paying attention to what the leading public authorities in Congress, the media, the universities, and the bureaucracy get angriest about.
The temper tantrums mentioned by Wettergreen were over government spending. In the case of the Environmental Protection Agency the presumption is that ordinary Americans in their local communities are unable to protect themselves against poisonous waste. Only a federal agency can do the job. In other words, the presumption is that people cannot be relied upon to perceive obvious dangers to their bodily health and to act, as individuals or communities, to remove the dangers. Similarly with the famous 55 mph speed limit. States and towns are presumed incapable of judging what safe speeds are in their communities; only experts in Washington, armed with their social-science surveys and studies, can objectively decide how fast we should drive.
Detailed government control of race relations is also strongly approved. Again, the presumption is that blacks and other minorities will be treated badly if the Federal government does not step in here. Conduct of men toward women and women toward men is likewise closely regulated. Women need to be protected by the Federal government because, presumably, they cannot protect themselves, and their men and their local communities cannot or will not protect them.
But while it would appear that the federal government wants to control every aspect of people’s everyday lives, this is not so. There are many areas where the federal government is very reluctant to regulate. Pornography is to be completely free, except that the states are still allowed to forbid child porn. Regulations supporting traditional families are conspicuously absent. The tax code, as George Gilder emphasizes, discriminates against families with a single male wage-earner. The federal government’s attitude toward adultery, fornication, and homosexuality is either indifferent or positively concerned to make sure such acts do not lead to discrimination against men and women who commit them.
One might think that the difference here is that the government wants to take a hands-off attitude toward morality. We often hear that the government shouldn’t impose its view of morality on the public. Yet the Stockman and Burford memoirs make clear that government is full of people who are ready to moralize and who do moralize constantly. They are full of moral indignation against anyone who seeks to cut domestic spending, no matter how fraudulent, wasteful, or abusive the cause. People who favor domestic spending cuts, they say, have no compassion. They are equally indignant against fraud, waste, and abuse in defense spending. They are shocked and appalled at American support for South Africa. Apparently it isn’t just centralized administration in the abstract that they want, but certain definite policy results that reflect a definite moral stance.
What would characterize the new America they seek? No discrimination on the basis of sex, whether based on natural differences or not. No policy however rational that leads to races ending up differently as groups. No money-making activity that doesn’t benefit the least wealthy among us, no matter how lazy, vicious, or irresponsible the particular poor person may be. A foreign policy that gives our wealth to the poor nations of the world—or rather not the poor nations, but their governments, almost never elected by the people of those nations. A foreign policy that seeks peace with the Soviets at almost any price, nuclear war being, it seems, the greatest evil imaginable. A constant deference to whatever any nation calling itself communist or socialist chooses to say or do, and a constant hostility to any nation allied with the U.S. or friendly toward us that does not satisfy the most rigorous requirements of “human rights,” which turn out to mean social justice in the sense promoted by socialists. And all of this is pervaded by a constant sense of guilt.
Why the guilt? Why do those who are most successful in our society feel that it is somehow wrong for them to be there? Could it be that they are afflicted by the palpable emptiness of their own lives, and they project their feelings that they deserve punishment onto the rest of America?
What the current ruling elites find intolerable is the claim that government ought to endorse and support traditional morality, for instance families headed by a married man and woman and the sexual and moral restraints that go with that (prohibition of adultery, fornication, pornography, homosexuality, etc.).
The traditional view of freedom and equality in America was that freedom didn’t mean doing anything you please, but rather living in the absence of despotic government and living as men and women free from the despotism of their passions. Despotic government meant (1) a government operating without the consent of the governed, and (2) a government ordering people to do what they as free men could decide for themselves. The kind of moral self-restraint that was routinely supported by government in the past—state, local, and national—is precisely what is most strongly objected to by respectable authorities today. The sturdy habits of republican self-assertion and self-control—which are also the habits necessary for accomplishing anything great, in thought or in action—are out of fashion.
What government wants today is the opposite. It wants people to be free to indulge their merest passionate whim-pornography, raising children without husbands, instant divorce, abortion when the baby gets in the way of one’s pleasure or convenience to name a few. It endorses minimal punishments for crimes committed out of a passion for gain or pleasure (robbery, theft, rape, even murder) and maximum penalty for crimes committed on behalf of traditional morality. (Think of Bernie Goetz, families refusing to allow the state to educate their children, property owners who gun down would-be robbers, etc.) If one of America’s Founders were able to observe the scene today, he might wonder why government policy at every level seems so eager to provide maximum benefits and attention to those human beings with defective bodies and minds, defective characters, people who can’t control their passions, and so little encouragement to those of real merit who are capable of achieving their excellence on their own or only with the help of their families.
Is there consistency in the central government’s passion for regulation in some areas and its hostility to it in others? I think there is. To exaggerate for the sake of clarity: the federal government is animated by a vision of justice that will make people slaves of the will of the community. Thus arises the government’s hostility toward the strong—they can get along without government—and its coddling of the weak: they will be the grateful wards of the state. The people will be given free rein in indulging their private passions for sexual excitement, other small pleasures, and entertainment of all sorts, so long as they do not try to resist the gentle but inexorable protection offered by the government. Tocqueville anticipated this state of things with amazing precision:
I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world. In the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. . . . Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided they think of nothing but enjoyment. . . . Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. . . . [The government] covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform. . . . But does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.3
Tocqueville didn’t anticipate that families would be the victims of this development, rather than part of the problem. He thought of families as havens of apolitical individualism, but they have turned out to be the foundations of moral and therefore political responsibility. In families, boys used to learn that a man’s job is to protect and support his woman and children, by working and, if need be, by fighting the family’s personal enemies and the country’s political enemies. Girls used to learn to respect men for their manly virtues of enterprise and courage.4 Our centrally administered state is working hard today to counteract these lessons.
Tocqueville accounts for this prospect by tracing it, at least in part, to equality: “Equality has prepared men for all this….” If no one rises, at least all are on one level, might be the sentiment of someone accepting this. Yet what is striking in American government today is that ordinary Americans resent the welfare state—after all, they are working hard to support their families, and much of their earnings go to support all those “compassionate” programs that undercut family life—while the professional classes and other elites are the ones who favor it. The most outspoken defenders of the bureaucratic state are not politicians but highly paid journalists, Harvard professors, and Supreme Court Justices who hold their positions for life. The fact is that these views are not widely supported by the public.
Ordinary people do not think minorities are routinely oppressed, that women are deprived of rights, that there is no equal opportunity in America. They think, on the contrary, that their country is basically just. Of course those who argue otherwise are strongly supported by those groups in society who stand to benefit most from policies based on those views, such as women who would rather be dependent on the state than on their men and families, blacks and whites who are happy to be dependent on the government for support, and the whole array of interests that get government money-farmers, steel and silicon chip producers, auto manufacturers, the handicapped, and so on—not to mention the lawyers, social workers, bureaucrats, and the rest whose careers depend on big government. The bureaucratic state is conceived in the heads of liberals, supported by special interests, and generally disliked by ordinary Americans.
This leads me to conclude, tentatively at least, that the animating cause of our current problems comes from ideas that our elites have come to believe, not developments following naturally upon an egalitarian society. If one is looking for a
parallel in Tocqueville, it is in his Old Regime and the French Revolution. There he points out that the French intellectuals before the Revolution were uniformly devoted to centralized administration and hostile to private property. It is not a devotion to equality, but a collapse of confidence of our educated classes in the goodness of traditional American democracy, that distinguishes our situation today. Their enemy, the “redneck,” is really nothing more than their caricature of the vast majority of middle-class Americans.
1James L. Payne shows that most Republicans in Congress (as opposed to the Republican leadership there) vote more consistently against programs tending toward centralized administration than do congressional Democrats, a point often distorted in the media and not mentioned by Wettergreen: “Fatcats and Democrats,” National Review, November 21, 1986, p. 34.
2This new regime of Congressional control of the bureaucracy that has emerged since 1965 is explained well by John Marini, “Administrative Centralization and the Legislature: Why Congress Cannot Govern,” presented at the 1986 meeting of the American Political Science Association, and by Wettergreen, “Constitutional Problems of American Bureaucracy in I.N.S. v. Chada.”
3Democracy in America Vol. II, Part I, Ch. 6.
4George Gilder, review of Family and Nation, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in Catholicism in Crisis, June 1986. pp. 32-36.