The Problem of Bureaucracy

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.



John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

About the Author

Recent Popular Posts

Related Posts


  1. nobody.really says

    Accurate enough, I guess. Bureaucrats may have more enthusiasm for their agencies than do the public at large. Similarly, libertarians have less enthusiasm for government agencies than do the public at large. I guess this suggests that, in determining the appropriate level of regulation, we should be skeptical of the perspectives bureaucrats and libertarians. What does this tell us about the optimal level of regulation?

    It is generally the case that the people most knowledgeable about a topic are also the people with an interest in the topic.

    • gabe says

      OK with a slight modification:

      People with an interest in a topic are generally the most knowledgeable; however that does not mean that those with an interest or engaged in a topic are the most knowledgeable.

      I certainly love football – but I have a hard time describing the Tampa Two defense. Of course, unlike a bureaucrat I do not have a vested and compelling interest in pretending otherwise.

      GO SEAHAWKS!!!!

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “The” problem is not the bees in the hive.

    “The” problem is in the need for, and creation of, the hive.

    • gabe says

      Right you are , again, Richard!
      Although I am of the opinion that the creation of the hive (with its minions) is what generates the “need” for it. I am reminded of the comments of T. S. Ashton, when discussing the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the tendency of “agencies” to self justify (I’ll skip the quotes and have a sip of bourbon instead). this indicates to me that this is not just a contemporary problem but rather endemic to government (and humans).

      take care

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      I think it is a fair and safe assertion that a bee without a hive will, in short order, be a dead bee.

      This it seems to me illuminates one of the problems with metaphor :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>