The Quiet Mutiny In Government

By the very definition of democracy, the degree of liberty in a free society can be measured by the extent to which citizens are able, through established processes, to exercise control over the state--and over that which is subsidized by the state's treasury.

In a representative democracy, as in the United States, ordered liberty requires that citizens may hold accountable for the policies and actions of the state those of their fellow citizens to whom they have entrusted their proxy in the delegated decision-making process.

That is not to suggest that the citizen need always be pleased, or even satisfied, with the acts or omissions of his delegates or of the state itself. It does demand, however, that the acts and omissions of the state derive in some fashion from the wishes of elected officials. Accountability has meaning only if those whom we reward or punish for their behavior have indeed had some control or potential for control over the events by which we evaluate them. How futile and self-deceiving it is to "throw the rascals out," if the "rascals" are as blameless and without authority as we.

Where the power of elected officials to act on our behalf in holding the state accountable is absent, the system from which they derive their representative authority is transformed into a facade which conceals the diminution of individual liberty.

If presidents and senators and representatives cannot guide the state and be held responsible for its course, how much less can private citizens believe that their opinions and preferences exert any controlling impact on the sovereignty to which they pledge allegiance.


Accountability is essential to our rights. Yet the trend of recent years has been to weaken accountability and to strengthen that elitism which results from reposing decision-making authority in bureaucracies and groups beyond the reach of democratic recall.

Depressing evidence of the tendency to elitism and non-accountability can be seen in many areas in addition to government: industry, mass communications, education--institutions in these and other areas which impact upon our lives, operate, more than ever, in a one-way manner, unrequired to take into account the interests and views of those who are touched by them.

Growth, complexity, and technological progress have had as their corollaries for the private citizen: loss of personal influence, loss of sensitivity to diverse needs and values, and indifference to separate worth.

Expecting efficiency, convenience, and ready satisfaction, we have instead witnessed confusion, frustration, and the kind of amoral corruption that is the consequence of departure from absolute standards of behavior and performance.

In private institutions, created to serve private ends, non-accountability to persons upon whom an impact is made, while undesirable, is bearable, at least to the extent that citizens have the freedom to avoid involvement with those institutions.

With regard to the state, however, we, the people, have an unavoidable stake in demanding accountability to us, through those whom we have chosen to govern. Our interest derives not merely from the fact that our contact with the state is unavoidable, but from the separate consideration that we are the source of the state's authority.

My own experience in the federal government has led me to the disturbing conclusion that elected officials have much less control over the state's activities than our standard texts in political science would lead us to believe.

If we're not running things and they're not running things, it seems reasonable to ask: who is?

Well, you might answer, the federal bureaucracy is. And the answer is at least partially correct. After all, the job of a legislative body is to set policy in cooperation with the executive branch, which must also carry it out.

One problem, however, is that after bureaucracy reaches a certain size, the chain of command is stretched fairly thin, making it relatively tempting, and often easy, for bureaucrats to forget the source of their authority and to arrogate policy-making authority to themselves as a supplement to their policy-executing duties. This possibility is easiest in those areas of government activity where legislated policy is loosely defined and subject to varying interpretations. It is exacerbated when bureaucracies grow so large and independent as to develop a life of their own, and become more concerned with serving their own prerogatives than with responding faithfully to the elected authority they were initially created to serve.

The scope of federal authority is now so vast and diverse that no member of Congress or executive branch department head can be aware of, let alone be able to exert any meaningful influence over, more than a fraction of even those issues and programs within his or her particular sphere of specialized responsibility.

That is bad enough. Worse, they are ever more forced to rely for policy development and execution on a bureaucracy whose independence has grown at as rapid a rate as reliance on it has increased.

This is not so much the fault of bureaucrats, who have merely moved to fill a vacuum, as it is of us, for failing to keep our system up to date with the expansion and technological change in our society. But wherever the fault may lie, it is individual liberty which suffers, as elected officials accountable to us lose control over the actions of the state: "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind."

Howard Phillips served as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity until this Spring.

"It seems reasonable to ask: who is running things?"