Abstract: Conservatives have often charged that the great centralizing tendencies in American government were a product of the New Deal. As the late Dr. Wettergreen shows in this essay, first published in 1988 as a chapter in The Imperial Congress, a book produced by The Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute, the true culprit was not FDR but LBJ, as the full bureaucratization of American government did not take place until the 1960s. Dr. Wettergreen makes a further useful distinction, grounded in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber, between “governance” and “administration.” In Dr. Wettergreen’s view, the centralization of governance is justified, but the centralization of administration is terribly threatening to the liberties of Americans. Although the statistics in this essay are mostly outdated, his analysis and argument are still relevant and persuasive.
Conservative Americans, almost as commonly as those on the left, are inclined to believe that bureaucracy is a necessity of modern government. According to this conventional wisdom, the bureaucratization of America has been going on—inevitably—for over a century. This conviction is decidedly pessimistic: after all, “bureaucracy” is a pejorative term. No matter how much we might try to use it with a neutral sense, its connotations of vapid formality, mindless routinization, and obtuse impersonality shine through. Even the greatest defender of bureaucracy, Max Weber, confessed that this form of rule is inhuman. In considering bureaucratization, then, we must ask whether modern government can be good government. Nevertheless, American government today is more highly bureaucratized than ever before, and it is likely to become more so. American government today, due to this, is not good government.
By practical standards, the United States has been well governed throughout most of its history. In the past, we have had a government which, by and large, sought the consent of the governed on the great issues of the day. We were blessed by national statesmen—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and many others—who actively sought political responsibility before the electorate for what they proposed to do, because they intended to do great things, and great things were done. Among these accomplishments were, in particular, the ending of the scourge of slavery, the building of a great modern nation unrivaled for civil and religious liberty, and the victory in a global war against barbarism. Moreover, the nation’s great injustices could at least be recognized as such, because such public principles as “all men are created equal” were popularly venerated.
Today, however, we have a government skilled in obfuscation. Elected officials are so intent upon avoiding responsibility that even the “regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money,” which the Constitution directs to “be published from time to time,” is a multi-volume monster—one so huge that it requires yet another volume to interpret it authoritatively. Representatives and senators freely admit that they do not know what was in the 1987 Omnibus Continuing Resolution. Our office holders are so far from accomplishing grand objectives that America cannot even protect its borders from drug runners, much less seal them against migrant workers or other foreign elements. Moreover, even if our public principles of right are still popularly venerated, we now have an injustice unmatched since the days of slavery, a national policy of systematic racial inequality called Affirmative Action, which goes virtually unopposed in the highest public counsels. If this catalog of governmental ills does not fit the political taste of all educated people, it could be amended to satisfy almost everyone, for almost all people today understand that our country is not well governed. For example, James L. Sundquist of the left-liberal Brookings Institution has been maintaining since 1980 that American government is “incompetent.”
Of course, not all would agree with the thesis of this essay: that the most serious ills of American government are due to bureaucratization; to what political scientists call “centralization of administration.” Beyond that, and contrary to what is ordinarily supposed, centralization of administration in the United States is not a century-old, inevitable trend, but a creature of the choices made well within living memory. It is important to understand, in other words, that the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson is the true father of our present troubles, far more than is the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. This point is important, not because Johnson is more easily despised than Roosevelt, but because it correctly explains what is the root of bureaucracy in America.