So what happens after a bill becomes a law? Back in 1798, Alexander Hamilton was already worried about that. “How widely different the business of government is from the speculation of it,” he wrote, with “the energy of the imagination” differing from the “execution in detail” — causing “delay and feebleness.” More than 200 later, “feeble” is perhaps not the first word starting with “f” that people use to describe government bureaucracy and policy implementation.
But the bureaucracy matters. The government is in more of your day than you might think, whether directly providing services or indirectly through regulation. In principle, bureaucracy is a rational way to carry out complex tasks. Max Weber argued that it’s about what you know rather than who you know, based on a consistent set of rules applied the same way to everyone, and on a division of labor that ensured that qualified people were on the job and buffered against political fluctuations.
This episode traces American history to see how the U.S. public sector has lived up to those ideas. From the 800 people employed by the federal government in 1789 to the more than 2.5 million civilians on today’s payroll, things have changed a lot. The Pendleton Act of 1883 sought to curtail party patronage and create a merit-based civil service.
Over time, driven by public demands and entrepreneurial elected officials, an “administrative state” took shape. The government began to regulate many more aspects of business, the workforce and the relationship between the two; it began to test the safety of food, drugs, and consumer products; and during the world wars it imposed rigorous economic mandates including rationing and wage and price controls. During the 1960s and 1970s it expanded into health care and environmental quality and waged a War on Poverty. From the four original Cabinet offices, there are now 15 — and an alphabet soup of more than 60 independent regulatory agencies like the FTC and SEC, plus 25 or so government corporations, like the FDIC.
These days President Trump promises to “deconstruct the administrative state,” roll back regulation, and reorganize the government. But he’s not the first to try. And administering the public sector is different in important ways from private sector management — the easy, profitable jobs don’t tend to get turned over to the government in the first place, and one person’s red tape is another person’s vital protection.
In short, as Woodrow Wilson put it, “it is harder to run a Constitution than to frame one.” This episode helps show why.