A Postmodern Science of Administration

So the title of this post comes from some ideas I’ve had rereading Peter Lawler’s book Postmodernism, Rightly Understood. Lawler sought to make postmodern thought’s intuitions worthy of philosophical reflection. Postmodernism, when we reason rightly, is not about the unknow-ability of truth, nor is it an affirmation of the inexplicable individual who no longer believes that science, democracy, and modernity will lead to human progress. Instead, postmodernism can be seen as a rightful recognition that our modern belief in an impersonal science and resignation of ourselves to an expert dominated future, divorced from genuine human needs for spiritual, relational modes of being, is no longer plausible. The  individual contra Hobbes and Locke cannot remake nature. Recognition of this fact leaves us with our leftover selves, the self that hangs around after all of the modern ideologies have been applied and consumed and experienced as failures.

Postmodernism affirms that we need to recover the language and practices that might make sense of our alienation. And this is significant because we get, how could we not after the 20th century, that alienation will not be resolved by either socialist government or Swedish welfare states. Even the Swedes are cutting entitlement spending these days. Of course, part of the expert-driven nature of democratic societies is  administrative-centered politics.

Ken Masugi has commented specifically on this blog on progressivism and its commitment to the science of administration. We can see this as the legal quest for the certainty that modern science holds out for us under its rational investigative approach to matter in motion. Now we apply it to policy with a credentialed elite doing the scientifically driven legal, economic, environmental, monetary, bureaucratic work. They interpret for us what we need to do in order to move forward with historical change. None of us, however, believes this any more. In particular, after the work of the public choice theorists, the scientific romance early 20th century progressives tried to kindle about administration for national progress is just burned out, something of a relic.

Maybe we really don’t need the public choice people to tell us how bad bureaucracy is, or really how human and self interested, error-prone, and just generally disreputable it has become. A Postmodern Science of Administration builds on this rejection by affirming a practice of political representation that connects with who we are as persons and our need to understand ourselves politically in the full light of our relational commitments and loyalties. Progressivism’s failure is in its deep misunderstanding of human persons by insisting that we can be explained by an ever increasing pile of scientific knowledge.

We can understand its hollowness by looking at two recent examples of progressivism’s failures to convince us that it can deliver the goods by way of scientific administration. No one actually believes that the Independent Payments Advisory Board, the unelected and largely unaccountable band of specialists charged with holding down costs under Obamacare, will be able to utilize medical data as it promises to ensure low-cost, high quality medical care.  Similarly, I don’t see any optimism for Obamacare and the government’s ability to administer it. Dodd-Frank’s big invention, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, might have more public support despite the fact that it already is in breach of its scientific policy pronouncements. However, its support might be instructive because the CFPB is seen as protecting the insignificant consumer from another bureaucratic abstraction: our behemoth banks who exist only by way of federal financial and banking policies.

The problem is that bureaucracy is an abstraction from the permanent need we have to deal with each other as relational and personal beings. This feature of personhood of existing for and in support of others is the best part of our freedom. Consequently, this is the best foundation for and limit on representative government. The science of bureaucracy takes us in a different direction. It compels the bureaucrat to see the other, one’s fellow citizen, as a body in motion, who must be channeled, thwarted, or redirected by the standards conjured by the agency from the broad legislation it receives from the personal, unscientific, and political branch–the legislature.  So, administration becomes not only rule-following,  but rule-making, defining, implementing, and enforcing.

Power tends to corrupt, but this is especially true when the boundaries of its exercise are left vague. We don’t have the science of administration, we have something quite human happening within these agencies. The problem is that the human tendencies of power-seeking, pursuit of perceived noble objectives, displays of pettiness and revenge happen outside of a venue where mediation by political representation could produce settlements that force us to soften or forgo our worst instincts in favor of political friendship.

Lois Lerner, as head of Tax-Exempt Organizations at the IRS, had the ability in any number of ways to put down many aspiring libertarian and conservative citizen groups. Lerner’s was a revenge motive designed to quash the groups challenging Obama’s progressive nobility. She probably understood herself as a noble servant. In Congress, she’s just another liberal lawyer from a blue district, vying against a small town businessman from a red district over tax legislation. They sort of cancel each other or blunt one another’s edges by giving and taking. The gentleman from Alabama’s 4th district might win one round, but who knows what the next term holds.  This would seem to work better, as Madison knew. So we need fewer bureaucrats and a robust representative branch that permits us to be political, to be real citizens. Then, the bureaucrats must learn to follow laws given to them by the people’s representatives to administer, not the other way around.

Richard Reinsch

Richard Reinsch is a fellow at Liberty Fund and the editor of the Library of Law and Liberty.

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