The liberal critics of Big Government

What does it mean to be a “progressive” or “liberal” in America today? More than anything else, perhaps, it implies a determination to defend the signature achievements of the New Deal/Great Society eras: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and a collection of related programs. And that’s just the problem, say their critics on the right: for progressives, government is the answer for everything. But are conservatives the only ones concerned about the growth of the administrative state—of bureaucracy? Should progressives be worried as well?

We’re used to conservatives, from Ron Paul to Rush Limbaugh, complaining about Big Government. Believe it or not, however, there was a time when liberals—social scientists, lawyers, some members of the Roosevelt administration, even the philosopher John Rawls—worried about the consequences of a liberal state built on regulation and government services and the people’s loyalty to the institutions responsible for them. Anne Kornhauser’s new book, Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press), reintroduces the liberal critics of Big Government, arguing that their concerns are still relevant today, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency refocused concern on the surveillance bureaucracy.

Discussing the implications of her book for today, Kornhauser, a historian at City College of New York, ticks off a number of other areas where the New Deal institutions and their progeny are not fulfilling their expected role, including health care and regulation of the financial services sector along with national security. To this I might add Social Security and, in particular, Disability Insurance—programs that are harder today to improve and update because they’re underfunded and/or constantly under siege from the right—although some progressive Democrats are now trying to reverse the momentum.

Has the problem of Big Government become so thoroughly politicized that it’s impossible to grapple with? Why aren’t more people working to remake the New Deal institutions, rather than tear them down? I got a chance recently to ask Kornhauser these questions and to explore the issues she poses in Debating the American State. The administrative state is necessary, she told me, but it needs to be made more “democratic”—more transparent, more open to citizen participation, and less dominated by powerful interests—and we can expect more people to insist on this going forward. Other liberal scholars, too, she says, are starting to investigate the problems of bureaucracy, and we’re bound to hear more of their critiques in coming years.

What got you interested in the New Deal administrative state and the controversy over it? Did you expect to find so much anxiety about it on the left?

I became interested in the New Deal because I was interested in liberalism and its history. It was during the New Deal that the Democratic Party first identified itself as “liberal,” in part to distinguish itself from earlier Progressive moralism, and in part to differentiate itself from the more libertarian bent of the Hoover-led Republicans. First as a candidate and then as president, Franklin D. Roosevelt led the way in associating the Democrats with the term “liberalism.” It is not entirely clear what he meant by this; as is the case with liberalism in general, more often it defines itself as a kind of critique of the status quo than as a positive program for change.

The bureaucratic aspect of the New Deal stood out as a fundamental point of contention and concern among certain liberals and some on the left as well. We associate this set of concerns—those related to what the political discourse now calls Big Government—with a conservative attack on liberalism, but bureaucracy was a sticking point for some of the very people who built the administrative state in the first place.

Anxiety may be too clinical a word, even though I chose it. But I found liberals, including some in the FDR administration—who did express concerns about the new, centralized bureaucracy that came with the New Deal and expanded rapidly with World War II. The problems they identified had to do with the effects that a large public bureaucracy could have on constitutional democracy. These people— social scientists, lawyers and legal academics, philosophers, social critics—worried about the lack of representation of various interests and open deliberation in bureaucratic government. They also worried about the erosion of legality. Bureaucracy operates more according to informal and flexible guidelines, and less on the basis of hard and fast rules that we associate, not always correctly, with law. Bureaucrats, as opposed to lawmakers, have much more discretion in how they make decisions and they are less accountable to the public.

What’s at stake for us today? Are these questions still relevant for progressives when it seems like most critics of “bureaucracy” are right-wing?
They are absolutely relevant. Bureaucratic government—which is necessary, I might add, for regulation, for social services, and for a national security apparatus—has become bigger and more entrenched, less accessible to the public, less transparent, more subject to the suasion of the powerful interests it regulates. If you want these things—regulation, social services, national security—then you have to put up with a lot of bureaucracy. Personally, I value highly the first two and I know we need the third in some capacity as well, though I believe the national security state in particular has grown out of control and impinges too much on the individual rights and liberties of Americans citizens—and, for that matter, other people around the world.

The question is, How can we have what some people in New Deal era called “responsible bureaucracy”? This is not just a question for Americans. Other democratic countries are struggling with this problem as well. I do not have the answer, and neither did the people I studied. But I think they got the questions right, and they began to think through some possible checks on the growing “leviathan”—as the administrative state was labeled, even by progressives of the time such as Charles Beard.

It seems a bit far-fetched to think that the New Deal model of administration, social programs, etc., could have any relation to the Nazi state. And yet a very interesting group of émigré intellectuals made this connection in the 30s and 40s. Were they justified in doing so?
Yes, they were justified in connecting the two systems’ growing use and abuse of bureaucracy, executive-centered government, and emergency powers, a development that characterized many modern states at the time. A global crisis in capitalism and a global war accelerated reliance on the administrative state, and that was the case no matter what kind of government was in charge. The issue for the German émigré intellectuals became: how to manage the administrative state in more “normal” times—both in the US, and especially in postwar Germany, where many of the émigrés served as advisors to the American occupation government. It was not so much the social programs that evoked the parallels, but the reliance in each country in the ’30s and ’40s on a top-down, emergency-driven, discretionary form of government. Of course, the differences were tremendous and more important than the similarities. But the similarities could be used as object lessons for how to think about the role of law and democracy in the modern state.

Can you summarize briefly your thinking about John Rawls’ contractual theory of justice and how it relates to the administrative state? My impression is that he ultimately didn’t think these institutions were supported by a democratic society.
John Rawls was an ideal theorist. That means his political and moral philosophy centered on ideal principles and ideal institutions. From here, he worked backward to critique actually existing institutions in a constitutional democracy based on their adherence to these principles of justice. Although he did not say so in his most famous book, A Theory of Justice, the constitutional democracy he was most concerned to critique and perfect was our own.

In my book, I argue that part of what drove Rawls to devise this critical liberalism was the growing administrative state. In my view, his notion of justice as fairness would force significant reform of many of our administrative institutions. Rawls didn’t reject administrative institutions, but felt they should be put in their place–guided by the rule of law and limited by deliberative democratic institutions such as legislatures. Rawls was deeply critical of the American state, once describing many of our political institutions as “riddled with grave injustices.”

Rawls’ social contract theory, or theory of justice, posited that under ideal conditions—chiefly, those in which people were stripped of their positions in society, were rational, and were free, that is, dominated by no one—people would consent or “contract” to live in a society guided by two principles of justice. Put crudely, the first insisted on equal essential liberties for all; the second permitted social and economic inequalities only in a society that afforded true equality of opportunity, where any inequalities that did exist were of “greatest benefit to the least advantaged.”

These principles become a kind of test of the justice, or fairness, of actually existing institutions. My reading of Rawls is that many of the institutions in the modern American administrative state would fail this test. Rawls did not reject administrative institutions, because he realized they were necessary for the kind of regulatory welfare state he valued. But he felt they should be guided by the rule of law and limited by deliberative democratic institutions such as legislatures.

Arguably, both programs like Social Security and institutions like the Pentagon and Homeland Security are all parts of the administrative state. Yet it seems that when we talk about the administrative state, we’re mainly talking about the former, not the latter.
I think that a significant imbalance did exist regarding which parts of the bureaucracy we focused on. But in recent years, the balance has been shifting toward more discussion of the national security state. We no longer live in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, yet we have a huge extra layer of “security” that has evolved in its wake. Republican Sen. Rand Paul is pretty much running for president on an anti-bureaucratic platform with Homeland Security and all that goes with it as Exhibit A. The Snowden revelations kicked off a national, even international, conversation about the national security side of the administrative state, and I think that is good.

However, it is very hard for any politician to oppose “more” national security, and not just for cynical political reasons. It is much easier to argue to the American public that the federal government is going to do more to protect them, rather than less, even though less is sometimes more. That, I think, is what we have learned recently, through Snowden and others. How much do we want to limit our own freedom of action, of speech, of movement, in order to contain a shadowy, ever-changing enemy? And how many people do we want to—need to—kill to feel safe, and at what cost to the rule of law? Even the Republican-dominated Senate, in its reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, is pushing for “a retrenchment…of government,” as the New York Times recently put it.

In the 60s, people talked (to some extent) about democratizing the administrative state, making it more answerable to the people. Is this possible? Why hasn’t it happened in the US?
It is possible to make bureaucracy more or less democratic—within certain bounds. I will not go into the story of how those in the 60s and 70s were thwarted, in part because there is a healthy debate about whether the reforms they sought were all that democratic in the first place. But this much we know: in bureaucratic organizations, there can be more or less transparency, more or less citizen participation, more or less domination by the most powerful interests.

As to why the US has not moved toward a more democratic version of the bureaucratic state, I do not think I can adequately answer this question. I can say that there are some reasons that are particular to this country and some that are not. Bureaucracy is notoriously difficult to change. People in bureaucracies of all kinds develop vested interests in keeping things as they are—keeping their jobs, their connections, their positions of power. And there is a structural tension between some aspects of administrative governance and democratic norms and practices.

In this country, I think the political will is missing. I do not think it would be wrong to read into my book that there are very few people who have pushed or are pushing for the democratic reform of bureaucracy. And even if there were more naysayers, who would pay attention? It is not a very sexy issue!

Finally, the debate about democratizing bureaucracy has been polluted by partisan warfare over Big Government. We have had for quite some time and will continue to have Big Government. The question is not big or small, but what kind and to what ends?

Despite all the anxiety about the administrative state, and all the rhetoric (especially on the right) against it, it seems to keep growing, even under conservative presidents and congresses (Department of Homeland Security, etc.). Do you think this will just continue, or should we expect a moment of reckoning when it has to become more democratic or morphs into something very different?
A bureaucratic Armageddon? Gosh, I hope not! My mentor often reminded me that historians cannot predict the future. He was right. I honestly do not know, but you are right, the leviathan just keeps growing. I will say this: one thing that could organically reverse the trend of the burgeoning central state is the size of the population. Parts of the state are responsive to the people it serves, and the rate of population growth in the US has generally been declining for quite some time.

Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other vital programs have been under continuous threat for 35 years now—some, like AFDC, have been abolished. Is this in part because liberals have never been able to formulate a consistent public philosophy that includes these programs, or get it accepted?

Yes, I think so. Liberals have been better at justifying the goods that particular programs can deliver than at articulating the costs that we must pay—and I do not mean taxes!—to have them. Nor have liberal politicians been particularly adept at coming up with creative solutions to some of these problems, such as bureaucratic capture, a lack of transparency and fairness, and a sense of powerlessness among citizens to influence the programs that affect them. You can see this with the Affordable Care Act.

On the other hand, Social Security and parts of Medicare seem to be different from other parts of the administrative state in that they pay for themselves directly through payroll taxes. So they’re not always painted with the same “bureaucratic” brush. Is it possible that some parts of the administrative state are less open to attack because people have a stronger sense that they “own” them?
As the author of an exhaustive study of Social Security, you are probably better positioned to answer this question than I am. But I will say that the literal investment that Americans make in these programs likely imbues them with a kind of metaphorical investment as well. Americans may well be less inclined to feel alienated from these programs than from those that treat them more like supplicants than citizens.

One problem, however, is that, looking at, say, the European model, if we treat Americans more equally in the realm of health care—rather than maintaining the double standard of Medicare and Medicaid—we are going to need even more bureaucracy. And there are costs to be paid there as well. Judging by national health care systems, it simply is true that if we treat Americans more equally as health care recipients, all but the very rich (and even they in some cases) will have to wait longer for certain medical procedures and will have less say in many of their health care decisions.

There is a middle ground, and I think the Affordable Care Act was one effort to find a piece of that ground. The impulse behind it was largely a good one: to enable more Americans to have health coverage. Yet, as I mentioned, we can see how quickly it became enmeshed in a host of bureaucratic problems of its own. These were dealt with defensively and the administration was clearly unprepared for them.

What was the most surprising thing you found in researching your book?
Actually, two things surprised me. One is that, in the years since I had started writing the book (it began as a Ph.D. dissertation), liberal scholars across the gamut of disciplines had published books and articles about the problems of bureaucracy. Obviously, there have always been some critiques of this kind. But they have noticeably picked up in the last half-dozen years or so.

Along with other scholars, I attribute this to the combination of the growth of the national security state after 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, which revealed a pattern of under-regulation and a nightmarish bureaucratic complexity that governed the banking industry. The first awoke people to the continuing and bipartisan proliferation of the national security state; the second suggested the extent of the financial industry’s capture of the financial regulatory apparatus. Finally, scholars realized that the increasingly partisan nature of American political discourse and policy debates had made the problems of government bureaucracy seem solely political in nature rather than structural as well.

The other surprise was the intellectual connection I discovered between John Rawls and the themes of the book. For example, Rawls read some of the German émigrés’ writings and thought about some of the same issues they did. His work has implications for thinking about the administrative state that I did not at first appreciate.

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