Coolidge Saw Part of the Problem

Calvin Coolidge was no Lincoln, no Roosevelt, certainly not a Madison or a Hamilton.  He did, however, have something to offer.  Of particular resonance to modern ears is his 1926 forecast about the dangers of a growing federal bureaucracy:

“Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people.  Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development.  Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy.  It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.”

It was a remarkable insight, especially from a man hardly noted for prescience.  It is even more remarkable coming out of a time when the federal government was tiny by today’s standards and Congress had hardly begun to delegate as much authority to the agencies, commissions, departments, whatever, as it has since.  Now we know that he saw the future, at least in part.  He did miss one troubling aspect of our modern bureaucracy, something that intensifies the problems Coolidge otherwise so concisely identified —- the unfounded sense among the bureaucracy of intellectual superiority over the average citizen.

Though most federal bureaucrats retain a welcome sense of public service, too many combine this sense of superiority with the feeling of invulnerability, which Coolidge identified, to do great harm.  They lawlessly impose their personal preferences and judgments on the policies and decisions of their agencies.  Examples abound.  The Veterans Administration, for instance, seems to think that the convenience of its staff trumps the lives and well being of those the administration was created to serve.  People at the Internal Revenue Service make tax decisions on the basis of their personal political preferences, and what is worse, the agency then protects the wrongdoers by stonewalling questions from the people’s elected representatives.

Anyone who has done business with government will recognize such patterns.  Junior nobody’s in various commissions or offices condescend to prominent academics and established business people, as if only those in government could possibly understand the issues at hand.  These same juniors, even more, their supervisors, seem shocked that their most casual observations fail to rock those outside government.  These people dismiss objections not with superior arguments or a display of more complete information but rather with an appeal to their own authority, prefacing their remarks with phrases like “we at State “ or “in my conversations with secretary whoever.”  Such behavior speaks loudly to the unaccountability alluded to in that 1926 speech as well as the unaccountable sense of personal superiority now so common in Washington.

Sadly, the country seems to have no way around this state of affairs.  So many in Washington need to feel superior that such attitudes will likely remain a permanent irritation in life.  Worse, they will likely remain a constant source of thoughtless behavior.   (Think “fast and furious.”)  Meanwhile, the administrative state has grown so much since President Coolidge issued his warnings and has became so thoroughly established that there can be no going back, not without a revolution of sorts that could easily bring something worse.  In this circumstance, the only hope on which the public can hang is that enough in the bureaucracy retains enough sense of public service to think things through before acting and treat the people gently.

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