The Framers of our Constitution were well-versed through experience and history in the dangers of tyranny. Their education in Classical history and literature familiarized them with the political theory and practice of the world’s first constitutional governments like democracy and republics. Their European influencers like Montesquieu and David Hume were similarly trained. From these sources, and their own take on their experiences with King George III, the Framers learned that concentrated and centralized power ultimately leads to tyranny–– the degradation of civil liberties, freedom, and equality.
One form of despotism, however, they could not have anticipated is our modern tyranny of the clerks, the functionaries in hypertrophied government bureaucracies that degenerate into instruments of political factions to be used against rivals. For over a century the Constitution has been weakened and compromised by these unaccountable, mostly anonymous bureaucracies––as the excesses of federal agencies over the last seven years are now making obvious.
The idea of technocracy or rule by “experts,” of course, was not unknown in antiquity. Plato’s famous utopia in the Republic (c. 375 B.C.) imagined a state run by cognitive elite “guardians” created by covert eugenic marriages, and trained for five decades in philosophy and virtue. Subsequently the idea of the “philosopher king” remained a staple of political fantasy all the way down to Marxism’s “vanguard” of the elite intelligentsia who could discern what Marx called the “inner but concealed essential pattern” of economics and history.
But Plato’s ideal has always encountered the problem that Roman satirist Juvenal identified: “Who will actually guard the guardians?” Such utopian notions foundered on the empirical reality of a flawed, irrational, universal human nature driven by “passions and interests.” And one of the most dangerous and destructive is the lust for power that seldom is sated, and always craves more.
That tragic realism, an inheritance from both our Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultural traditions, was also shared by the Founders. As historian Walter A. McDougall writes, “[A]ll Federalists believed human nature was flawed . . . envisioned no utopias, put little trust in republican virtue, and believed the only government liable to endure was one taking mankind as it was and making allowance for passion and greed.” Hence the Constitution’s structure of divided, mutually checking balanced powers.
The progressives at the turn of the 20th century, however, believed that the Constitution was an anachronism based on outmoded beliefs like mankind’s flawed nature. Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly, in contrast, argued that new “sciences” such as economics, sociology, and psychology had made obsolete tradition, faith, and history as guides to human nature––and Darwinism’s “natural selection” had shown that human nature, rightly guided by technocrats, similarly could progress beyond the old realist view of it as flawed and unchanging.
This new “knowledge,” then, should be integrated into a more powerful centralized government, which would create, as Wilson wrote, a “public bureau of skilled, economical administration,” one staffed by the “hundreds who are wise” given the authority to manage and guide the thousands who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.” We see previewed here the arrogance and contempt of government agencies for the citizens and taxpayers subsidizing their abusive powers.
Apart from the begged question that such knowledge of human motives and behavior could be subject to the methods and protocols of real science, the creation of such agencies housed in big bureaucracies ignored the malign tendencies of those institutions. An obvious one is called “professional deformation”: the shift of a bureaucracy’s loyalties, duties, principles, and functions away from the Constitutional purposes it was created to fulfill, to the increasing advantages, enlargement, and scope of the agency and its powers.
This tendency worsens with government bureaucracie, the lion’s share of whose members are not accountable to the market or the voters, which means they can fail with impunity. Indeed, federal government workers are doubly insulated from accountability by both civil service laws and unions. As Ronald Reagan quipped, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”
Our country’s regulatory regime illustrates this tendency. The expansion of government agencies that took off during FDR’s New Deal legislation has relentlessly continued, at a total compliance and economic cost of their regulations estimated to be $1.927 trillion annually. And these agencies thrive by dint of Congressional laws that mostly set out general goals rather than detail the specifics of the law’s functioning. That’s how we’ve ended up with two million federal workers who typically enjoy wages and benefits well beyond the private workforce’s.
It seems we have created de Tocqueville’s prescient “soft despotism,” a government that “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and most energetic characters cannot penetrate.”
As a result of this public institutional gigantism, the interpretation, enforcement, and punishments for breaking these regulatory rules are left to the agencies themselves, whose procedures and powers are visible only to those who fall afoul of these regulations, and can afford lawyers. And all these functions are conducted by anonymous clerks who are not accountable to the voters, and vitiate the “checks and balances” of our government’s divided powers.
Perhaps that’s why, as Kimberly Strassel commented recently, these agencies have been hostile to every Republican president since Ronald Reagan––not to mention explaining the federal clerks’ overwhelming preference for Democrats when making political donations. The party of Leviathan takes care of its minions.
And when litigation does succeed in stopping an agency’s abusive power, it takes years and usually a Supreme Court decision to make it stop. A recent example is Sackett vs. EPA, the third time the Court has had to rein in this agency’s notorious penchant for expensive and needless encroachments on the rights of individuals, states, businesses, and civil society.
As the Competitive Enterprise Institute writes, “For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have tried to claim that almost every bit of domestic water imaginable is a federally regulated water”––including private property like that of the Sacketts, who spent 15 years confirming their Constitutional right to build a house on their own property. The “rule” they fought was conjured by distorting or simply ignoring the Clean Water Act, a typical example of how an agency’s power to interpret the law can produce violations of the rights of citizens.
Moreover, the EPA bears much of the blame for the lengthy delays, most instigated by well-heeled environmental lobbyists, that add more costs to big infrastructure construction. As Jonah Goldberg points out, “it took 410 days to build the Empire State Building and 16 months to build the Pentagon but nearly 20 years to complete Boston’s Big Dig highway tunnel project. The Hoover Dam was scheduled to take seven years but was completed in five. That would be a generous timetable for Environmental Protection Agency review of the proposal today.”
Such hubris and incompetence can be found in practically every federal agency, because each is beholden to the federal government, not the voters. In other words, they are political entities, not a collection of objective “experts.” A particularly egregious, if not shameful, recent example is the Pentagon’s addition of transgender and “systemic racism”––both dubious political phenomena––“training” for our troops. No wonder the services are falling short of recruits, when they choose sides in a divisive political debate, rather than sticking to their sole purpose of training warriors to defend our nation’s security.
Finally, for nearly six years we have witnessed some of the worst abuses of government power in our history. Powerful agencies like the Department of Justice, the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS, which are sanctioned to surveil, investigate, arrest, and subject citizens to dawn raids by heavily armed agents, have been weaponized to serve the political interests of one party at the expense of the other, thus trashing the Constitution to which they have supposedly sworn fealty–– especially its tattered 14th amendment’s promise of “equal protection under the laws.”
The indictment of Donald Trump for improperly handling classified documents is just the latest in a series of government actions that deface this critical defense of our freedom and political equality. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, no Trump cheerleader, recently has emphasized the patent injustice of our government’s “selective, vindictive prosecution” of Donald Trump:
The Obama-Biden Justice Department gave former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a complete pass on similarly egregious offenses.
The Biden Justice Department — even as it indicts Trump — is laying the ground work to absolve President Biden himself on what appears to be appalling classified-information violations going back decades.
Yet the earth has been scorched to make a criminal case against Trump, not only a former president but a current presidential candidate — right now, the prohibitive GOP favorite to run against Biden.
To anyone watching this, the normal reaction to Trump’s indictment is: What about Hillary? What about Biden?
Come to think of it, what about Sandy Berger and David Petraeus, who got slaps on the wrist rather than the serious felony prosecutions for classified information crimes? What about Mike Pence?
It couldn’t be more obvious that these cases are pertinent to the question of whether the indictment of Trump is fair and just.”
Equality under the laws, one of the most important bulwarks for protecting our freedom against tyranny, is in danger. The politicized excesses of our government agencies fit Aristotle’s definition of tyranny: “arbitrary power responsible to no one,” and that governs “with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will. No freeman willingly endures such a government.
In the end, the 2024 election is not about Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It is about whether we will live free to govern ourselves, or whether we will further endure the tyranny of the clerks.