Many Americans now feel that Washington is broken, that there is some unidentified, underlying problem with our nation that can’t be fixed by elections.
Voters put Democrats in power, then Republicans, but still the problems grow and Washington becomes more and more dysfunctional.
We know something is wrong, but we aren’t sure what to do.
The obstacle to overcoming our current slide toward decline may rest in a surprising place.
We tend to see the government as five distinct governments:
- Our local city council, mayor, county commission, school board, sheriff and town office.
- Our state legislature, governor and state agencies.
- The federal Congress.
- The presidency.
- The Supreme Court.
This is the crux of the problem: the biggest problems are found in none of them.
In truth, there is a sixth branch of government, and its dysfunctions account for America’s most pressing challenges.
The sixth branch operates almost exclusively behind the scenes, it receives very little press compared to the other five, and it seldom comes under attack by the other branches or the media.
Yet this sixth branch eats up well over 80% of the national budget and accounts for most our debts and deficits. It also exerts more direct power over America’s citizens than the other branches combined.
The sixth branch of government is the federal-state-bureaucracy, and it makes most of the daily decisions of government and carries out most government actions.
By definition, those who work in the bureaucracy are unelected and therefore not directly accountable to voters. They serve at the pleasure of administrative superiors, many of whom have little experience working in the private sector and few of whom are displaced or replaced by elections.
Whatever the voters do, the federal-state-bureaucracy continues to run the government, push for increased budgets, and make thousands of little daily decisions and policies.
Add to this the millions of non-governmental workers whose jobs entail daily interaction with government bureaucrats and who by extension form a de facto quasi-governmental bureaucracy (such as employees at Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, or the Democratic and Republican parties), and we have what Eisenhower openly called the “military-industrial-complex.”
For example, in his book, In Fed We Trust, David Wessel, shows how the major decisions of the crisis were made by the head of the Federal Reserve and the Secretary of the Treasury, with their top staff members, not by the White House, leaders in Congress or members of the high Court.
Nor did any governor or state legislature have much say in the event, and our elected officials in Washington–who received most of the blame for the economic crash–were hardly involved in the most important decision-making processes.
The bureaucracy (some public, some from the quasi-private sector) led the event, and also our major national responses to it.
The Executive Branch and Congress did get involved, later, mainly to authorize stimulus spending. But the bureaucracy hammered out most of the stimulus plan, and then it implemented the stimulus once it passed Congress.
The bureaucracy does most of the work of government. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote in an article entitled “Can America be Fixed”:
“The United States has a gargantuan tax code that, when all its rules and regulations are included, totals 73,000 pages; a burdensome litigation system; and a crazy patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations. U.S. financial institutions, for example, are often overseen by five or six different federal agencies and 50 sets of state agencies, all with overlapping authority…
“The World Economic Forum consistently gives the United States poor marks for its tax and regulatory policies, ranking it 76th [among nations] in 2012, for example, on the ‘burden of government regulations.”
Most people realize at some level that the President, Senators and Justices aren’t actually doing most of the work of administering government, that this is done by staffers, appointed administrators and full-time government employees. But few of us take the time to articulate just how significant this is.
In fact, the federal-state-bureaucracy grid and the military industrial complex run most of what we blame on elected officials.
Our officials seldom admit this, of course, since helplessly pointing out that an elected leader has little influence on things isn’t a very effective campaign slogan.
Voters want to believe their candidates will fix things, not be told how little they can actually do.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt predicted how modern politics would run when he said:
“The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to make a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
This advice set the tone for modern politicians, both during campaigns and while in office. It is also the chief governing strategy of the federal-state-bureaucracy.
The fact that each attempt to try something is expensive, and that once a government program is established it is very difficult to shut it down (and therefore we are still paying for a number of programs that have proven ineffective), is seldom pointed out.
As a result, the bureaucracy is continually expanding–along with the size and cost of government. Government that consistently grows–but doesn’t become more effective.
“In 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement ‘you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time’… In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.
“More alarming: In 1980 the United States’ gross government debt was 42 percent of its total GDP; it is now 107 percent.”
When bureaucracy grows, so does dysfunction. If bureaucracy actually fixed our problems, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.
But with government debts, deficits, borrowing and levels of regulation at all-time highs, our problems just keep growing.
For example, since the passage of the new Health Care law, medical costs have skyrocketed.
If bureaucracy makes things worse, why do we support it?
The answer is enlightening: When our political leaders want to change things, they turn to bureaucrats for statistics, information and proposals.
When our elected officials weigh these “facts” and make decisions, they then turn over their plans to the bureaucrats for implementation.
In short, whatever voters and officials decide, bureaucrats ultimately run things.
Government by bureaucracy isn’t a new development, of course.
It is the fundamental operating principle of Chinese politics, for example. Confucius promoted bureaucratic rule as a kind of true patriotism, and endowed it with an almost religious fervor.
The word “Mandarin,” which can be translated as “government official,” has a long tradition, and indeed the Chinese system created two languages and cultures–the mandarins spoke the “official” language of Peking/Beijing, while people of the cantons (provincials) spoke the dialect of the masses.
The American founding generation rejected the British bureaucratic approach in the 1770s because they were deeply frustrated with the corruption and unnecessary complexities of the British ministry system and its labyrinth of Byzantine bureaucracies.
Today, however, Washington’s bureaucracy sprawls across all fifty states and around the globe–rivaling those of China and Europe.
Max Weber once pointed out:
“Power is exercised neither through parliamentary speeches nor monarchial enunciations but through the routines of administration.”
This observation has been around for decades, but few people have paid attention.
As long as our government is the bureaucracy, elections aren’t going to change things very much. And until our elected officials muster their courage and shut down the non-essential functions of government in order to force real spending cuts, our national decline will continue.
Free governments often start with lofty documents and ideals of freedom and greatness, but they decline when bureaucracy quietly takes over.
We are a bureaucracy now (in other places I have referred to this as a “Spendocracy”), and the only way back to freedom is to cut the bureaucracy.
Congress can do this voluntarily, which will be painful but is still possible, or we can wait for total government dysfunction and the inevitable crises that will bring our nation to its knees.
One or the other will occur.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.