In the New York Times this weekend Anthony Banbury, a civil servant at the UN, told us why he was resigning. The UN bureaucracy, he has found, is insulated from political control and serves it own interests. The nation states that are in political control manipulate the UN’s operations for domestic advantage rather the promotion of world peace and security. As a result, the UN deployed soldiers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo as peacekeepers to the Central African Republic, despite their well known tendency to violate human rights. The consequence has been not peace, but the rape and torture of innocent civilians.
Banbury seems to think UN could improve if the bureaucracy had better people and the nations behaved with greater attention to the UN’s objectives. But the problems he identifies are intrinsic to the UN’s structure. The inexorable failure of the UN instead underscores the indispensable role of the United States in providing the public goods of global peace and security that the UN claims to advance.
Questioning the effectiveness of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has become the national pastime ever since two nurses in Dallas became infected with Ebola after following CDC protocols. Yet, one overriding fact rarely sees the light of day: CDC does not deliver medical care, none at all, and rarely ever sees or touches it. It is a data collection and analysis agency that makes recommendations to those who actually live with and treat the diseases.
CDCs legitimacy comes from its claimed abstract scientific expertise. President Barack Obama defended CDCs recommendation against state quarantine efforts to control the disease by insisting “We don’t just react based on our fears. We react based on facts and judgment and making smart decisions.” We rely on the “best science.”
Several commenters vigorously disagree with my proposals to limit the influence of bureaucracy on the grounds that these solutions do not attack the roots of the problem and may create more bureaucrats. But many of my proposals would not expand bureaucracy. For instance, the REINS Act forces Congress to approve major rules. It will create no new bureaucrats by itself and would almost surely cut down on the work of agencies as they realize some of their proposals could not pass both houses. Putting independent executive agencies under Presidential control would not create any new bureaucrats either. And it could eliminate some bureaucrats who are responsible for coordinating the work of these independent satrapies.
More importantly, focusing simply on the number of bureaucrats in government is a mistaken way of thinking about the problem of bureaucracy for classical liberalism. Today the greatest cost to liberty from bureaucracy is a more intrusive and more left-wing government than people want. More bureaucrats, correctly placed and incentivized, can reduce these dangers. A case in point is OIRA—the unit within OMB that reviews regulations for their consistency with the President’s program and deploys cost benefit analysis. OIRA has prevented myriad intrusive and unjustified regulations from seeing the light of day. OIRA also has a far less parochial, empire-building culture than most agencies with a single mission. Although having OIRA means having more bureaucrats, OIRA has meant a net gain for liberty. Madison reminded us that the separation of powers can protect liberty, even if it multiplies the branches of government: “Ambition can counteract ambition.” The same can be true of internal checks within the bureaucracy.
Responding to my post on the problem of bureaucracy, some commentators asked how to prevent bureaucrats from creating a bigger and more left-wing government. Here are a few solutions:
1. Delegate less. Conservatives and libertarians should be reluctant to delegate power that is likely to be exercised in a liberal direction. To put it another way, these lawmakers should demand a statute several degrees to the right of where they think it should be if there is a delegation because the bureaucracy will move it several degrees to the left.
2. Pass the REINS Act. The REINS Act would apply to open-ended delegations of power already in place by requiring a Congressional vote under fast track procedures to approve major agency rules before they become law. This act would transfer power currently held by bureaucrats back to legislators. Of course, people on the left realize the constraints imposed by the REINS Act and thus it could not be enacted until the next era of unified Republican government.
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.