The Fourth Branch and the Bible: An Odd Couple Part One: The Basics

Posted on July 7, 2014 by

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I hope everyone is still following the various “scandals” (I want to be sensitive to the liberals, who deny any scandals) continuing to unfold, or just plain continuing: IRS, VA, illegals at the border, EPA efforts, the HHS Obamacare mess, etc. If you keep up with things like this, have you noticed how many involve the shenanigans of large bureaucratic Federal agencies? So, is the Federal bureaucracy the “Fourth Branch” of government? Some used to say the Fourth Branch was the press, but the mainstream or old-line media have largely lost their collective voices. And of course, they are not legally part of the state institutional structure. I agree then with writers who say the “bureaucracy” is the Fourth Branch.” But if I say this then what do I mean that would make my designation relevant?

In American political jargon a branch of government is one of those arrangements established in the United States Constitution–remember that document we all learned about in grade school, except those under the age of 30? There were, you may remember, three branches: the Legislative (Congress), the Executive (the President), and the Judicial (Supreme Court). Each had a set of powers, each was limited in and by those powers, and each could in various ways veto the actions of the others. In addition, the Legislative and Executive branches were periodically accountable to the electorate, so they did have an extra check.

In contrast, the Constitution makes almost no mention of government agencies, except by allusion when the President is said to be the chief executive, the commander-in-chief (of the military bureaucracy), and given authority to appoint certain officials, subject to the approval of the Senate, who in turn will oversee at the time unnamed agencies. Agencies were established by Congress, pursuant to statutes, but they were initially small, as the power of Congress was small. The President had relatively little to worry about in terms of knowing what was happening in those bureaus. One could count them on two hands–War Department, State, Treasury, Attorney General, and a few others. This state of affairs continued more or less until after the Civil War, when conditions and political ideas began to change to a more affirmative view of government.

Progressive ideas in America and modern liberal and Social Democratic (not to mention Socialist) ideas in Europe led to pressure for more active and expansive government. The New Deal pushed the move further, and the Great Society, beginning in 1964, caused the size and scope of the Federal government to explode. What this meant in terms of the way the new services were organized was bigger agencies. In fact, part of the constellation of Progressive ideas was the rule of trained, objective, experts working in bureaucratic contexts and governed by rules (see Woodrow Wilson’s work on administration, and Max Weber on the nature of bureaucracy). If one could organize employees to provide government services in this way, the size of bureaucracy (it was thought) wouldn’t matter. Of course there were tweaks. Herbert Simon showed that problems would arise if the “span of control” was too large or the number of levels was too big. But most everyone believed that if only these technical problems were solved, big bureaus would be the panacea for public problem-solving.

Challenges did arise. Anthony Downs, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, Robert Bish, William Niskanen, the Public Choice School of economic thought and others showed that really bureaucrats “were people too,” with the same potential for self-interest as anyone else, that institutional rules could create perverse incentives for actions by bureaucrats, that the rules themselves could be plain stupid, and that bureaucrats could be just as “political” as politicians. All these problems could be made worse by bigger and bigger bureaucratic institutions. Big was not necessarily better. And of course, none of the old or new Federal bureaucracies was accountable to the electorate; nor were they effectively accountable even to the President or Congress. They had grown so large that no one really knew what they did and even if they did know, stopping the bad outcomes was well nigh impossible against the inertial weight of the huge agencies and their Civil Service rules.

What is most intriguing to me is the continuing attitude that whenever one wants to organize the doing of something, bureaucratic arrangements are still considered the way to go about it. Give the agency enough money, put the right rules in place, hire the right people, and all will be well. Size doesn’t even seem to matter. Alternatives to bureaucracy or at least methods of external accountability are ignored.

What do we get? We get what we might have expected if we had thought through the implications of human nature operating in particular legal and political contexts without effective checks on authority. We get three basic outcomes, each of which can be further elaborated: (1) a basic disjunction between the goals of the agency and the demands of the consumers of its services; (2) a growing separation of the agency’s knowledge about conditions from the reality of conditions, and (3) an increasing autonomy among the agency employees, who may, if they are very self-interested, be able to pursue their own goals apart from the well-being of consumers (veterans, taxpayers, recipients of health care, etc.). These are overlapping problems. In effect the agency can become autonomous and incapable of responding to conditions as they actually exist. It is not easy to see the problems as they arise, until they become overwhelming, because there is no easy way to measure the output of a service provided by government as a monopoly provider with no market pricing in the presence of competition.

Agencies get larger and larger. Dysfunction gets worse and worse. Few see (or care to see) what is happening–especially not those in the agency who benefit from the dysfunction. Eventually, the “lid blows off” as the outcomes get so bad that no one can ignore them any longer. Change is called for, money is asked for, and very little actually is changed. We will see what comes of the VA, IRS and Obamacare issues, but I am betting that the love affair with the bureaucracy will not be fundamentally altered.

If then I were king for a day (and all of you may play at this too), what would I do? I would utilize one or a combination of an array of solutions, depending on the specific situation:
1. Move the particular service out of the public sector altogether and into the private sector–government should not do everything, nor can it do much well.
2. Decentralize the service: Make units of provision much smaller and independent and “closer” to those whom they serve. For example, let the states or local governments provide the service.
3. Restrict the power of the agency, in some cases severely, so that it cannot engage in “mission creep” and can only perform a limited and well-defined set of actions. For example, if we really want to limit the IRS and “depoliticize” it, just change the tax code radically–maybe a single “fair tax” or a low proportional income tax with few loopholes, but in any case, simple, a tax that could be free of agency manipulation.
4. “Starve the beast”: Reduce agency budgets, even draconian reductions. Simple, but politically difficult.
5. Establish accountability measures: This might be called “creating guardians” to watch the agency–and with real authority to act. But as Anthony Downs observed, sometimes the agency captures the guardian, so who will guard the guardian?
6. Establish an internal separation of powers within the agency: Interesting, but largely untried. It should be though.
7. Fragment the agency to provide an element of competition–market-like conditions: This works well for some types of services, but not for capital-intensive ones, where economies of scale can be had with “bigness.”
8. All of the above and more.

Bureaucracies are no more or less than ways of organizing some activity, whatever it might be. They are at times even useful, more efficient, than other ways. But like most ways of organizing human action, they are not universally beneficial form all situations. Wisdom and reason call us to think carefully about if and when they serve a useful purpose for any given action situation. And we must also bear in kind that we are speaking of human action. People are not machines, they don’t always think or act alike, nor are they motivated uniformly, nor endowed the same. It therefore stands to reason that collective human action cannot adopt a “cookie cutter” approach either. Bureaucracy must be seen in light of these conditions, not arbitrarily imposed as some utopian solution for all action problems. Let me add also that all institutional arrangements intended to organize collective human action have as their ultimate goal the good of the entire group in question. When bureaucracy fails to promote this common good, it is tome to re-examine it, not to blindly affirm it.

This first part of a two part series was intended to establish the groundwork for further examination. The next part will address the Biblical view of bureaucratic institutions, if one can be found at all. Are there at least principles we can bring to bear on thinking about when or whether bureaucratic forms should be or can be used? All of life should be subjected to the searching light of Scripture. This one is no different.

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