Administrating the Decline in American Citizenship

fourthbranchConfirming ordinary experience, the polls leave no doubt that the majority of Americans now regard the U.S. government as more a threat than a protector, acting beyond law or popular control. How government in America became “them” rather than “us,” what government’s loss of legitimacy means for this country, and whether lost confidence and legitimacy may be reclaimed any more than virginity, are questions we must ponder.

This year, Rasmussen’s April 15 survey of sentiments about government found that only 22 percent of respondents considered government as protective of their persons and rights, while 54 percent see it as a threat to liberty and 37 percent fear it outright. This growing alienation from government is seen on the issue of public safety, as well. The previous year, right after federal, state, and local authorities had hunted down the Boston Marathon bombing’s perpetrators, the Washington Post and Fox News asked people whether they feared more “that the government will not go far enough to investigate terrorism . . . or whether it will go too far.” Respondents feared the government more than the terrorists by margins of seven to 13 points, respectively.

Similar polls at the turn of the millennium had shown a substantial reservoir of trust for the government. Indeed, within living memory, Americans (along with the Swiss) were unique in the world, regarding themselves as citizens—masters of government rather than subjects who must be wary because they are powerless before it. How is government in America managing this reversal of the American people’s civic sentiments?

In short, Americans’ habits of allegiance to government were formed with regard to a government much smaller than today’s—a government defined in practice as well as theory by the Constitution of 1787. Even nowadays, children learn that we are governed by laws made by our elected representatives, executed by presidents or governors and enforced by courts where you may be penalized only by a jury of your peers. That is the Constitution to which all officials swear the oath of office, the America to which we recite the “Pledge of Allegiance.” But that America no longer exists.

Today’s America, ruled over by an administrative state, is ever less different from the rest of the world. Virtually all of the rules by which we live are made, executed, and enforced by administrative agencies—from the IRS to the EPA and countless others—that are responsible only to themselves, to those who appoint them, and to the interest groups with which they are affiliated. Ordinary people have virtually no recourse against them.

When some 200 paramilitary agents of the Bureau of Land Management dealt with a Nevada rancher using armored cars, took his herd of some 400 cattle, shot his bull, and tasered his son supposedly to collect a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees, few imagined that those cattle had eaten a million dollars’ worth of grass. Everyone who receives a bill from a government agency knows that the agency quickly multiplies that bill with interest and penalties, and that at best, ordinary citizens can argue before a judge (not a jury) only whether the agency followed its own procedures—not whether its judgments were just. Also, the American people’s near-universal experience is that merely pointing out a mistake to the IRS—or to any other agency—likely leads to its finding pretexts for imposing other, even heavier costs on you.

Moreover, no one was surprised to learn that the family of Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader and senior senator from Nevada, stood to benefit from the rancher’s dispossession. Rory Reed, Harry Reid’s son, is brokering the construction of large scale solar energy farms in the area. Some of the land where they are being built contains wildlife which is to be transferred to the land on which the rancher’s cattle have been grazing. The Bureau of Land Management, which decided to clear this particular land of cattle so that the transfer of said wildlife could proceed, is headed by one Neal Kornze, whose career consists exclusively of service to Senator Reed.

Americans are learning the hard way that the modern administrative state serves the powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens. That is why, the peculiarities of the rancher’s dispute notwithstanding, the American people reacted with something like “That, but for the grace of God, could be me.”

Our bipartisan ruling class has barely begun to realize that this popular sense of powerlessness and resentment is a big problem. Thus, a designated defender of the government somewhat gleefully challenged Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and conservatives in general, to support the government’s actions against the rancher as enforcement of the rule of law. The government spokesman could do so only on the basis of confidence that the audience would regard the rule of administrative agencies with the same degree of legitimacy as the rule of law. But that confidence is baseless. Administrative rule is far different from the rule of law, and hasn’t the latter’s legitimacy. This difference in legitimacy is not the latter-day lucubration of certain Americans. You might find interesting Tocqueville’s The Old Regime And The Revolution, which describes in some detail how the French monarchy de-legitimized itself by replacing law with administration.

Expecting ordinary people to support governmental actions as if they were their own is reasonable only when these actions proceed perceptibly from elections. There is not, nor can there ever be, such a thing as a good citizen in an administrative state. Europe’s experience is showing that at best, such states can expect subjects who are mollified by opportunities to game the system. In Europe, majorities have already turned their backs on their political systems, while growing minorities are looking for ways to undo them. Some kind of breakdown looms.

To avoid following in Europe’s footsteps, we Americans would have to walk back the unaccountable administrative state in which we live. The public’s appetite for this is strong. But both our political parties’ establishments are extraneous to it, vying only to be the administrative state’s administrators.

Angelo M. Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and is a Senior Fellow of The Claremont Institute. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “. . . we Americans . . . have to walk back the unaccountable administrative state in which we live.”

    Those of true intellect such as Dr. Codavilla, not just “intellectuals” (“wordsmiths” per Robert Nozick), could perform a great service by pointing out possible ways (1) to slow, then halt, the trend of continuing expansion and arrogations of the Administrative State; (2) to dismantle the structures for the exercise of its authorities; and (3) develop alternatives for the essential functions that would be needed to mitigate the economic and civil disruptions occasioned by undertaking steps (1) & (2).

    Examining the ways toward those ends would no doubt entail understanding how and why this Administrative State and its powers have come into being as a result of the devolution of constitutionally delegated sovereignty of the representative bodies (Congress). This may raise the issue of whether those representative bodies (through the motivations of their members) can be induced, seduced, or forced, to reacquire that devolved sovereignty, along with the responsibilities it entails.

    As noted by Dr. Codavilla, the principles and motivations of the memberships of the dominant political factions, significantly as developed over the past 75 years, do not
    augur well for that prospect.

    Unfortunately, the declining influence of the previous Ruling Class and their installation of policies and programs to mollify or suppress dissidence in the several sectors of the larger mass of the electorate and general public, are being followed with the rising dominance of a Managerial Class as a displacing Ruling Class. A large sector of that Managerial Class has vested interests in directing functions of the Administrative State.

    Perhaps this is a stage in the transition from the attempts of the “masses” to rule society (as Ortega y Gasset asserted) by displacing, disrupting or swamping the previous Ruling Class. Those effects have also been noted by Michael Oakeshott.

    “The public’s appetite for this* is strong. ”
    *”walk back the unaccountable administrative state”

    Possibly, but currently this may be limited to an appetite for “accountability” that would provide sufficient understanding for the need for some reformation rather than elimination.

    “But both our political parties’ establishments are extraneous to it, vying only to be the administrative state’s administrators.”

    Perhaps not entirely; the constitutionally delegated representative bodies have lost the political will and motivations to monitor, let alone control, the “managers” of the Administrative State; principally due to the shift in the functions of the members of the representative body from the original constitutional delegation, to the preferred representation of those particular interests served by the Administrative State.

    Perhaps those of intellect can guide us in how to “walk back,” and even how we may carve new paths that will accommodate the multitudes made up of generations who have become accustomed to life without recognizing, excepting and performing obligations. More likely, the changes will occur “spontaneously” from failures, distress and necessity.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says


      Final paragraph:

      “. . . the multitudes made up of generations who have become accustomed to life without recognizing,** accepting,**and performing obligations.”

  2. gabe says

    “As noted by Dr. Codavilla, the principles and motivations of the memberships of the dominant political factions, significantly as developed over the past 75 years, do not
    augur well for that prospect.”

    Regrettably, this is also true for the populace.
    I suppose that ultimately we come back to Tocqueville and his cautions regarding the “tutelary” impulse(s) of government.

    I offer the following quote from Paul Rahe’s discussion on his book soft Despotism regarding Tocqueville which may be found here: Also fine commentary by James Caesar and Thomas West included.

    “Above all, (Tocqueville) was persuaded that where there is centralized administration and individual citizens find themselves alone facing the state, they will succumb to the disposition that Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau had called inquiétude (using a word that has a range of meanings stretching from uneasiness and restlessness to anxiety and outright fear) and, in search of a sense of security, will gradually become passive subjects. But he also saw that where there is considerable local autonomy, as there was in the United States, and the citizens experienced civic agency and learned the art of association thereby, where there is genuine and spirited public debate, where the citizens find in Biblical religion a moral anchor and a foundation for their own dignity and where they are sustained by domestic tranquility typifying their homes, the sense of inquiétude typical of the liberal democratic man will give way to citizens’ trust in their own capacities, and they will be likely to be anything but passive and to have the confidence to join together and face down officials intent on lording it over them.”

    The combined changes in the populace and our representatives makes correction an extremely daunting task – just wish i had enough brains to figure it out – so I will leave it at that and like you await a response (goodness, am I slipping in to a state of inquietude)?

  3. David Upham says

    Here’s a shot in the dark: Congressional Republicans should vote to give a Democratic President more authority and responsibility. Amend the APA so as to require the President to read and then publicly sign new regulations, and give the President unilateral authority to repeal them.

  4. libertarian jerry says

    The problems and dilemmas that face American citizens of a Conservative or Libertarian persuasion goes back almost to the beginning of the Republic. However,there are certain mileposts, along the road of history, that shine the light on the growth of Leviathan. Lincoln’s Civil War that put into concrete the establishment of centralized political power in America. The establishment of the Federal Reserve Fiat money system.The 16th and 17th Amendments to the U.S.Constitution. The 1934 bankruptcy of America along with the New Deal which saw the rise of the Administrative State and the Social Security numbering of American citizens. The Great Society.The Civil Rights Act and lately The Patriot Act. All of this plus U.N. membership and a myriad of lesser but still important legislation that has solidified and centralized the power of Leviathan and at the same time diminished individual liberty.. But,despite all of the above the biggest contributor to the growth of the state has been a majority of the American voting population who voted to give up their liberty in exchange for security. Historically what it boils down to is what Soviet leader Kruschev once said when he came to visit America. I paraphrase. “In 50 years time America will accept communism by voting for the politicians that will bring communism into America.” Albeit in modified form,this is exactly what has happened in America. A voting majority of Americans accepted the Communist leviathan because they voted for it. The truth is that nothing will change democratically because a voting majority either are employed by or live off of the state. In essence,people who believe in liberty are outvoted.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says


      Did you mean to omit the actions of Wilson intentionally taking the U S into the European War in order to establish the concept of efficacy of an Administrative State functioning through centralized government? That was a major step which became resurgent in 1930 (yes, Hoover).

      All this is part of the emergence and rise of a Managerial Class becoming dominant in industry, distribution, finance, education and governments (all levels).

      That Class rises on the acceptance (and consent?) to its intermediation functions in increasing areas of the interactions of humans with one another and with their surroundings.

      What many fail to realize is that “Socialism” under whatever its labels is not about “ownerships” per se, it is about control – through powers of determinations – essentially, management. All so-called “Socialist” or “Social Democratic” societies have been and are systems of managements – managed societies.

      Working from his original base in agriculture (which produced many of Russia’s managers; idem, Gorbachev) Krushev was experienced in the trends and needs of “masses” for management. That shaped his views of all he saw trending in the West. He has not been disproven – even if he used the wrong labels.

  5. W. B. Allen says

    Two things can be helpfully considered in this context. The one is the very express substitution of “social benefit” for “individual rights or liberty” that transpired over the course of the 20th century. That principle became so entrenched that we can scarcely even recognize its oppressive presence in most decisions, whether administrative or judicial. In short, under the impress of modern progressivism something of great value has been surrendered. It can not be recovered without directly challenge the foundational premise.
    Second, it is absolutely to view the issue from the perspective of the citizen, as suggested by this cogent analysis. That must mean, above all, that we must weigh just how far the “national character” can be recovered or at least re-infused with a manly sense of self-reliance that will resist in principle and not merely on convenient pretexts of interest the assertion of governmental direction of the society. That’s a big deal, isn’t it?

    • gabe says


      Thanks for giving nice form to my objections to the rather frequent talk of “externalities” and how that supports the substitution of “social benefit” for “individual rights or liberty”

    • JQA says

      Sound argument by Prof. Allen. The crisis and work at hand amount to a big — indeed, revolutionary — deal. It is dreadful that the oppression and usurpation by lawless and unpopular officials recall those actions so unjust and illegitimate as to absolve its subjects of allegiance, according to the Declaration of Independence (a document that, like Prof. Allen, praises “manly firmness” in fighting oppression). Yet it’s also useful that our crisis invokes the Declaration, as this makes the document and its language actually politically relevant (not merely ceremonial or hazily inspirational) for us today, providing a large-scale teachable moment.

      In citing and reading aloud the Declaration, civic-minded teachers and political leaders should, of course, teach the political principles of the Declaration (the self-evident truths of human political equality and of government by consent). It would also, though, be pertinent then to proceed to the particular “injuries and usurpations” that the Declaration itemizes. These concrete details illustrate and apply the Declaration’s principles (and ground them against drifting and varying with the winds). More important, several kinds of offenses by today’s lawless administrative government especially echo those royal oppressions and usurpations. The Declaration helpfully provides us friends of liberty and law with the language — precise, concise, and rhetorically powerful — to identify our political crisis clearly, intelligibly, and thus *publicly* We need only replace references to King George with those to congressional “laws” establishing the lawless regime of rule-by-agency and to examples of typically offensive conduct by agencies. Consider:

      “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” (e.g., Homeland Security; EPA; DEA)
      “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures” (any of the many agencies with armed enforcers.)
      “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation” (the latter as Congress’s usual legislative dereliction of duty in authorizing agencies to define their own object and make their own rules on it)
      “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury” (as Prof. Codevilla cites, judges’ (not juries’) Congress-given power to decide whether agencies injured individual rights or exceeded their power)

      Rhetorically and practically, the focus on lawless agencies and “pretend legislation” would usefully keep attention on the civic principles of law, citizen equality, and individual rights. This would help temper and educate any radical mania actually in the movement, or ascribed to it by the media.


  1. On The Triumph Of The Administrative State

    Angelo Codevilla has produced another penetrating short essay on the state of The State. Entitled Administrating the Decline in American Citizenship, he succinctly describes the way the Liberal Fascist Regime we live under functions day-to-day, underne…

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