Several weeks ago, the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog published a discussion by Jeff Guo of the new book, What Washington Gets Wrong, about the failure of the administrative state, specifically, the contempt in which so many of those inside the Beltway Bubble hold the rest of us. In a previous post, I made some suggestions about what could be done to at least get the bureaucrats in question to understand the country at large.
But there’s a reason why all those ideas are probably doomed to fail, and it has to do with the attitude in the Wonkblog piece itself. The post is full of the same contempt, and the same lack of understanding that Bachner and Ginsberg decry, even as the author purports to give it an understanding nod.
After an introduction, Guo lets loose with this:
All of this should be taken with a few caveats. First, Ginsberg is a self-described libertarian who writes with an ingrained suspicion of bureaucratic power. If you believe that federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are red-tape machines, it’s easy to reason backward and conclude that shortsighted bureaucrats are part of the problem.
Sure, and if you’re convinced that a libertarian is unable to honestly assess how well agencies are working, it’s easy to reason backward assume that someone comes to their conclusions because of his ideology. Here is Colorado, the EPA – the agency actually tasked with and create for the purpose of keeping air breathable and water drinkable – released poison into one of our rivers when it bolluxed up an attempt to clean up an old mine. Nobody was held accountable, nobody got fired, nobody got charged with a crime. That’s exactly the kind of self-dealing bubblethink that might lead one to conclude that shortsighted bureaucrats are part of the problem.
A lot of this elitism is probably justifiable. When only 36 percent of adults can name the three branches of government, you wouldn’t want to hand over control of FDA to, say, your next-door neighbor. In the sample of bureaucrats that Bachner and Ginsberg looked at, the majority had master’s degrees or more. It should be a comfort knowing that there exists a specialized class of people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the intricacies of, say, tax credits for the poor or the diplomatic intrigues of the Caucasus.
There are enough strawmen here to have kept Ray Bolger employed for all of the Oz sequels. Nobody’s questioning the value of technical expertise nor the lamentable state of civic education. In fact, subject matter expertise and civic education aren’t even interchangeable. I’ve met plenty of Constitutional experts who couldn’t tell you how an internal combustion engine works, and plenty of run-of-the mill bureaucrats who haven’t the foggiest notion of how our system is supposed to work. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt which is more dangerous.
What’s problematic is when the bureaucrats with alleged technical expertise let their bureaucratic, rule-making instincts get out in front of the people who have to live with this stuff every day. The National Forest Service and the BLM are two of the most hated agencies out west. Why? Because people who never have to live on the land, never have to make a living from the land, make rules for people who do, send grey men and women out to hold pointless and pre-determined hearings with them, and then throw them into jail or fine them into oblivion when they resist. C.J. Box, a mystery writer who lives in Wyoming, perfectly capture all-too-many of these interactions.
Those ranchers and farmers may not know much about how to test the latest cancer drugs, but they damn well know what it takes to produce the beef that Mr. GS-11 has for his dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
It’s not like this is a new development. The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s came in reaction to exactly this kind of governmental abuse.
Here’s Guo’s final paragraph about how the bureaucrats’ intentions are good, oh Lord don’t let them be misunderstood.
Fair enough. But respect, as the saying goes, is a two-way street, and Americans have a long and ignoble tradition of denigrating expertise. Today, nearly 40 percent of adults think there isn’t evidence for global warming. Skeptical parents won’t vaccinate their children, endangering their communities with breakouts of preventable diseases like measles. So maybe we can make a deal. If we want experts to listen to our opinions, we might also do them the courtesy of sometimes listening to their opinions, too.
The imbalance of power is exactly what drives the contempt on one side and resentment on the other. Again, nobody is calling for government by referendum. But we don’t have to “do the courtesy” of listening to the subject-matter experts. They have, by virtue of the administrative state, the power to compel us not only to listen, but also to obey. They have the power to make life more complicated, more expensive, more energy-draining, more trap-ridden. And they do it with our own money.