Our Not-So-Big But Clumsy Bureaucracies

Francis Fukuyama is most famed for his association with the “End of History” hypothesis of the late 1980s/early 1990s–the idea that the emergence of liberal democracy all over the world represented not just a sort of evolutionary development but perhaps an omega point beyond which there was no real reason to change. He’s now somewhat revised that view as premature if not naive, and is in the midst of producing a series of books on the rise of and problems encountered by the modern state, the latest of which is Political Order and Political Decay, reviewed in this issue of the Washington Monthly by the University of Pennsylvania’s John DiIulio.

Now many readers may know of DiIulio as a crime policy wonk, or as the Bush administration’s first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Organizations, or as the guy who referred to his Bush White House colleagues as “Mayberry Machiavellis” before resigning his position. But he’s also a serious scholar of government as an institution, and it is in that capacity that he expands on Fukuyama’s critique of modern governments, including that of the United States, as increasingly ineffective not because of excessive size, but because their bureaucrats serve too many masters, including client groups and private interests. And both Fukuyama and DiIulio hold that Americans’ distinctive mistrust of government has kept it from redeeming the hopes and plans of the Progressive Era reformers who sought to give the public sector its own sense of mission and esprit de corps.

You should read the whole review, but one concern expressed by DiIulio is that dispersal of federal government responsibilities to state and local governments via intergovernmental grants and mandates, and to private contractors as well, is making government less accountable as well as less effective.

There are many steps on the path to reversing America’s political decay by proxy. We need to reinvent federal grants-in-aid to the states, drain the federal for-profit contracting swamps, and wring more public value from grants to nonprofits. But we also quite simply need to hire more federal bureaucrats. The federal bureaucracy is more nearly the solution than the problem. In Bring Back the Bureaucrats, I crudely calculated that we need about one million more full-time federal workers by 2035 in order to serve the public, stop draining its purse, start improving performance, and create an actual system of national public administration.

This agenda rather obviously cuts against the encouragement of both “devolution” and privatization by political conservatives, and also exposes the thinly-disguised motive of demolition that so often hides behind their schemes. DiIlulio is very direct in calling them out:

America’s political decay is fed daily by public disdain for public servants and fueled each election season by bovine congresspersons in both parties who score points with voters by bashing “the bureaucrats” and “running against Washington.” The first step toward slowing or reversing America’s political decay is to recognize how for-profit contractors and other administrative proxies have rigged the system in their own interest, expand the federal civil service, and start treating federal bureaucrats as if our public well-being depended on them—for it does.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.