by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine
The continuing disaster of the Obamacare website, like the law itself, illustrates one of the biggest bad ideas of the Progressive movement, one that reflects a central assumption of modernity: that new knowledge is now available that will allow an elite of technicians to order society more justly and efficiently, and eliminate the tragic realities of existence. Progressives bought into this idea wholesale, and ever since have wanted to expand the scope and reach of the state in order to empower those technocrats so they can lead Americans into a world of justice, equality, prosperity, and universal happiness. The metastasizing federal government now bankrupting the country is the creation of this dubious proposition.
The Progressives, however, uncritically accepted this faith. In his essay “The Study of Administration,” published in 1887, Woodrow Wilson asserted that administration was the most important function of government. But no “science” of administration existed in America, unlike in Europe, where statist governments with centralized power managed the lives of their citizens. Wilson yearned for such a political system, for new economic and technological changes had multiplied the functions of government: “There is scarcely a single duty of government which was once simple which is not now complex,” and “steadily widening to new conceptions of state duty; so that, at the same time that the functions of government are every day becoming more complex and difficult, they are also vastly multiplying in number. Administration is everywhere putting its hands to new undertakings . . . Whatever holds of authority state or federal governments are to take upon corporations, there must follow cares and responsibilities which will require not a little wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Such things must be studied in order to be well done.” The aim of such study will be to “open for the public a bureau of skilled, economical administration,” made up of the “hundreds who are wise” empowered to guide the thousands who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.” As a “science,” then, administration “lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions.”
The unproven assumption behind Wilson’s argument is that traditional wisdom, experience, common sense, businesses, and civil society are incapable of solving problems. Progressive journalist Walter Lippmann suggested as much in 1914: “We can no longer treat life as something that has trickled down to us. We have to deal with it deliberately, devise its social organization, alter its tools, formulate its method, educate and control it. In endless ways we put intention where custom has reigned. We break up routines, make decisions, choose our ends, select means.” Such activism is possible because “the great triumph of modern psychology is its growing capacity for penetrating to the desires that govern our thought.” Left unexamined is the question whether “modern psychology,” or sociology, or economics really possesses such knowledge, and even if these “sciences” do, whether large government bureaucracies, freed from market discipline and political accountability, are the best venues for applying such knowledge.
This ideal of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “enlightened administration,” has in form at least become a reality. There are now over 500 federal agencies, commissions, and offices, with 2.3 million employees costing $200 billion annually. This leviathan in 2013 will spend almost $3.5 trillion dollars ($645 billion of it borrowed), 45% of it on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These monstrous agencies allegedly are staffed and managed by “experts” who presumably have objective knowledge and techniques that enable them to manage the old age and health care of millions of people, who presumably are too “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish” to do it themselves. And now another gang of “enlightened administrators” has given us Obamacare, a complex, incoherent, badly constructed program slated to cost $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years, not to mention raising health-care costs and not even achieving its main aim, to cover the uninsured. Given the massive fraud, waste, unforeseen consequences, duplication, and character-corrupting moral hazard that all these progressive programs have left in their wake, we should be skeptical that the Progressive idea of “enlightened administration” or “bureau[s] of skilled, economical administration” has been anything other an ideological––and massively uneconomical–– fantasy.
More important, the notion of federal technocrats––supposedly apolitical, but many utterly politicized, as the recent abusive practices of the IRS illustrate––contradicts the assumptions behind the Constitutional order. The Founders created a government of checks and balances and divided powers because they feared both the tendency of the majority to tyrannize minorities, but also of minorities to tyrannize the people. As James Madison explained in Federalist 51, the “separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government” would allow each branch “to resist the encroachment of the others,” for “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Any elite, whether of birth, wealth, or presumed superior knowledge, if given concentrated power will be corrupted by it and eventually compromise the freedom of the whole. This is because all humans are flawed and subject to greed, ambition, pride, and numerous other vices. Thus an elite of technocrats armed with taxpayer money and the coercive power of the state is as dangerous as aristocrats or plutocrats. As Alexander Hamilton said inFederalist 85, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed.”
Worse yet, unlike state and federal politicians, who are selected by the people and thus to some measure accountable, these federal bureaucrats are anonymous functionaries, not subject to the accountability of voters or the market. No matter how much they fail, no matter how much money they waste, their budgets will be increased and their numbers will grow. The functionaries upon whose watch 4 Americans were murdered in Benghazi were given paid vacations then reassigned. Lois Lerner, up to her neck in responsibility for the political abuse perpetrated by the IRS, has retired with a fat pension. Do you think any of the Park Service employees who drove veterans away from their memorial in D.C. or harassed privately owned museums and monuments like Mt. Vernon will ever be held accountable? This lawlessness is exactly what the Founders feared about concentrated power beyond the reach of the citizens.
Most important, for all the Progressive talk of expressing the peoples’ “interests” and solving their problems, now these interests do not arise from the people, but are selected and imposed upon them by others. As Woodrow Wilson put it, “Whoever would effect a change in a modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That done, he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants. He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listen to the right things. He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way.” Every major problem that justified a massive federal agency––from Social Security to Obamacare––was sold to the people as a problem only an expanded federal government could solve using methods the Federal government chose.
Obamacare is merely the most egregious example of this process. Democrats for decades have asserted that health care is a “constitutional right,” that the system is in crisis and putting millions at risk. And they have insisted that only the Feds could solve this problem. The result is the bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine we call Obamacare. Other solutions––letting insurance be purchased nationally, instituting tort reform, reforming Medicare and Medicaid––were dismissed out of hand. The malfunctioning website is merely the consequence of a bad law and the incompetence of a federal bureaucracy that always spends other people’s money and is seldom called to account.
So if you’re unhappy about Obamacare, just remember it is the latest example of nearly a century of arrogant Progressive technocrats increasing and centralizing power in order to “educate citizens to want some change” and then “to want the particular change” the technocrats want. Meanwhile the Constitutional order––created to defend our freedom, not solve our problems––is insidiously weakened.