In Defense of the Administrative State

In “deconstructing the administrative state,” Trump is declaring war on American liberty.

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In his Q&A; at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 24, Stephen K. Bannon—former Breitbart editor and now President Donald J. Trump’s chief strategist—said that one of the chief goals of the new administration is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Continuing on this line of argument, he said that “if you look at [Trump’s] cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is deconstruction.”

In essence, Bannon revealed at CPAC that the Trump administration views itself to be at war with a great boogeyman of the conservative movement, a specter signified by the term “administrative state.” Google the term, and you will find a collection of articles by conservative scholars arguing that this entity is the enemy of American liberty and constitutional government. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The “administrative state” is, at its most broad, simply a term to refer to the agencies of government empowered by Congress to enforce duly enacted laws. For instance, the administrative state contains agencies like the Federal Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which stand accused of promulgating burdensome regulations. A whole column could be devoted to why the FDA and EPA are, in fact, necessary to protect American citizens from bad drugs and environmentally suspect business practices. This column, however, is not about agencies like those two that regulate business.

This column is instead about the parts of the administrative state that directly ensure that working Americans, veterans and their families, schoolchildren and college students, and the elderly all lead freer and more prosperous lives. Not only has the “administrative state” been a crucial component of American democracy since its conception, but it is also at the very core of government programs that have moved our nation closer to the more perfect union envisioned by the Constitution. To denounce it wholesale is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of history and policy.

As Jerry Mashaw, a Yale law professor, has shown, the perception that this state is a twentieth-century abomination of unaccountable bureaucrats never countenanced by the founders is a myth. Mashaw points out that even the broad grants of power given to the early War and State Departments left much up to interpretation. Early federal customs officials also had extraordinary discretion in their enforcement of the law.

This administrative arm of American government, present since its founding, became more crucial as the United States confronted industrialization and conflicts on the scale of the Civil War. Pensions, patents, and postal issues were all under the purview of organizations we would now call administrative agencies.

This historical reality makes a great deal of sense. To paraphrase Mashaw, laws have never just enforced themselves. If—as the President of Harvard tells graduates of the Law School each Commencement—laws are “those wise restraints that make men free,” the administrative state ensures those restraints are applied with the appropriate vigor in everyday situations.

Unlike the leviathan of GOP caricature, this administrative state often works on behalf of the most vulnerable. Since 1789, it has been responsible for the pensions of those who have fought on behalf of our nation. After hundreds of thousands died during the Civil War, those duties took on even greater significance. And during the three most important spurts of political and economic imagination in American history—Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the Great Society—the administrative state was at the forefront of innovative social programs. The Freedman’s Bureau, the Social Security Administration, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services—all three are monuments to the necessity of the administrative state, and two are still central to American life.

Of course, the administrative state is imperfect, like all government. But responding to that imperfection by arguing for its “deconstruction” is about as sensible as amputating a leg because of a broken toe. The goal of deconstruction is also intensely hypocritical. One highly imperfect area of the administrative state is immigration enforcement, but the Trump administration seems unlikely to “deconstruct” that part of it. Indeed, administrative agencies tasked with enforcing immigration law have behaved more arbitrarily since January 20. Put simply, the Trump administration wants to deconstruct the portions of the administrative state it does not like, and keep others for its own devices.

When Bannon singled out the administrative state, he did not just target an ideological concept or utter typically Trumpian nonsense. He declared war on widows and widowers who depend on the Department of Veteran Affairs for their pensions. He declared war on students with federal grants. He declared war on seniors who rely on Social Security and Medicare. He declared war on every American who expects their government to address problems effectively, flexibly, and responsibly. He declared war on every program that has tried to make our society more just for more of its people.

The administrative state may seem obtuse, but it is at the core of our experiment in self-government. Crude and craven attacks on it should inspire nothing but contempt and resistance.

Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History concentrator living in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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