A century ago, the solution to such problems — and the path to efficient, effective governance — seemed clear: Remove power from partisan politicians, confer authority on appointed experts and insulate those experts from political influence so they could better serve the public interest. But for the past half-century, American politicians moved in the opposite direction, undermining the idea of government as a profession requiring training, experience and commitment to public service — a crusade that has culminated in current attacks on the so-called deep state by President Trump supporters such as White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
But the political disarray across the United States and the quiet professionalism of park rangers, federal prosecutors and Foreign Service officers should remind Americans of the benefits of competent administration. Might the cure for what ails us actually be … more bureaucracy?
A hundred years ago, there was a bipartisan consensus on the notion of an expert-driven government. Reformers such as President Theodore Roosevelt envisioned a professional government made up not of politicians or lawyers, but of educated, public-spirited bureaucrats. His contemporary and rival, Woodrow Wilson, thought that administration — the day-to-day operations of governance — should lie wholly outside the sphere of politics. “Administrative questions are not political questions,” Wilson asserted.
But those days are long past. Few contemporary Americans share their forebears’ zest for empowering unelected experts. Contempt for bureaucrats has become one of the few places of common ground in contemporary American politics. Conservatives see bureaucracy as wasteful, corrupt interference with liberty, while liberals see it as undemocratic, elitist and vulnerable to capture by the rich and powerful.
The reliance on expertise reached its apotheosis during World War II, when government officials managed the global war effort, oversaw prodigies of production and even built the atomic bomb. That luster faded in the postwar era. During the 1960s, activists first on the left, then on the right, began to view reliance on expertise as incompatible with democratic citizenship. The popularity of President Ronald Reagan’s favorite joke — “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help” — made clear how widespread that view had become by 1980.
Not surprisingly, then, the federal bureaucracy has been shrinking for nearly half a century. The number of executive branch employees reached its peak in 1969, and while the current total nears that level, compared to the nation’s population or GDP, the federal establishment remains a shadow of its former self.
The Trump administration has taken this hostility to professional governance to the extreme, driving numerous career diplomats into early retirement, undermining the findings of its own experts at the Environmental Protection Agency and waging a rhetorical battle against the so-called deep state. But given the widespread dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual, perhaps Americans should reconsider the possibilities of government by professional experts.
A century ago, progressive administrations such as Wilson’s and Roosevelt’s showed that expert-driven government could be effective government. Roosevelt confidant Gifford Pinchot, one of the founders of professional forestry in the United States, worked with his father to establish America’s major forestry schools. These institutions trained the nation’s first generation of professional foresters, many of whom followed Pinchot — who would serve as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service — into government service. For Pinchot, marrying dispassionate science with public power formed the prerequisite for good government and national greatness.
Pinchot’s ally in Washington, Frederick Newell, built the United States Reclamation Service. An engineer by profession, Newell asserted that the “watchword of the engineer is efficiency,” a belief he applied to government as well. That meant not only the optimal exploitation of the nation’s resources through the erection of vast dams for irrigation, hydroelectric power and flood control, but also the efficient management of those projects by independent, scientifically-trained federal administrators. Newell sought financial as well as institutional autonomy for his agency, including an independent source of funding free from the vicissitudes of the congressional appropriations process.
These progressive civil servants touted the efficacy and integrity of bureaucracy. “Gladly and fully do they recognize their responsibilities to the American people for one of the most important trusts ever placed into the hands of a group of men in modern times,” gushed one of Pinchot’s men about the administration’s staff.
They had a point: Consider some of the enduring accomplishments of unelected bureaucrats. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission established rules that reduced the mortality rate on U.S. roads and improved the fuel efficiency of American vehicles. Granted authority to establish standards for emissions and dumping, the EPA has overseen remarkable improvements in water and air quality.
For half a century, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. oversaw commercial banking and mortgage lending in the United States. While regulations sometimes irked depositors (who longed for higher interest rates) and often upset lenders (who wanted to pursue riskier strategies than the regulators allowed), unelected experts stabilized the financial sector and helped underwrite decades of postwar prosperity. When Congress gave in to outside pressure and loosened the regulatory reins in the early 1980s, the savings and loans industry collapsed. Still, through that crisis and even during the Great Recession, the nation avoided bank runs and nobody lost deposits in insured accounts — real risks when these corporations were chartered in the 1930s.
To be sure, many progressive era supporters of expert governance seem naive to modern ears. It’s hard for contemporary Americans to recognize bureaucrats in the descriptions of “men actuated by public spirit” in the official reports of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Yet many lasting achievements of American public life — from environmental protection and food safety to space exploration and economic stability — resulted from a willingness to confer authority on public-spirited professionals and to insulate them from the demands of partisan competition. In this rancorous era, Americans might well reconsider the advantages of bureaucracy.