The Problem of Bureaucracy

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Bureaucracy helps enable both larger and more left-wing government because that kind of government accords with the preferences of most bureaucrats and makes them better off. Classical liberals and conservatives neglect this problem at their peril. Even when the President leans to the political right, the permanent government of the left provides a powerful counterweight to the realization of his objectives.

The political beliefs of the median federal government employee lie to the left not only of the median Republican, but also the median Democrat. This imbalance should not surprise, because individuals enthusiastic about using government power will self-select to become government regulators. In some departments, like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, the effect is particularly pronounced. Missions of such intensity often attract those of missionary zeal.

It might be thought that an administration in favor of more limited government could recalibrate  the bureaucracy during their tenure by hiring more conservative government workers. But several factors make such an effort unlikely to succeed. First, there is again the problem of selection bias—the applicant pool is likely to lean decidedly to left. Second, career bureaucrats will be able to influence hiring decisions. Political appointees of an administration cannot simply deliver orders; they depend on the good will of the civil service. As a result, bureaucrats have substantial leverage. Finally, too overt consideration of ideology in the hiring process can run afoul of the law and result in charges that the administration is politicizing the civil service, as the George W. Bush administration learned to its cost.

Second, bureaucrats’ interest in status encourages them to shape their agencies into powerful and consequential places. Thus, bureaucrats by and large are likely to push to expand the jurisdiction and power of their department. While expansive regulation is likely to reflect the preferences of most bureaucrats anyway, this effect works independently of preferences.

Third, expanding the scope of government may make bureaucrats financially better off. Careful empirical work has cast doubt on whether the growth of an agency leads to substantially higher salaries. But I think the more powerful pecuniary consequence of larger government is to create better outside employment options for agency employees. The more intrusive regulations are, the more agency officials, particularly high ranking ones, will earn in the private sector by helping businesses manage their way around them. The revolving door is not only a generator of conflict of interests, but a gateway to the larger state.