The problem with government bureaucracy


I follow Robert Higgs, economic historian and economist, on Facebook and generally, he posts, what are to this libertarian, brilliant status updates about the world in which we live – mainly, about the government therein. Here is one such status update perfectly articulating the complexities involved in government bureaucracy:

If our politico-economic system were the creation of a small group of über-conspirators, it would be easy to change. People would need only to identify, expose, and oust the “man behind the curtain.” But our system is nothing of the sort, notwithstanding the enduring popularity of Grand Conspiracy Theories. Even the formal government itself is so vast, multi-faceted, and organizationally tangled that it defies description as a clear thing, being more like an almost amorphous blob, leaking out along innumerable channels into the surrounding society and at the same time allowing outside influences to seep into its own workings in countless ways. In any given decade, millions of people pass back and between its interior and its exterior, and many others take up residence in the gray area that indistinctly separates the state and the society.

I am not endorsing the facile idea that “we are the government.” However, I am restating a theme I stated at the very outset of my book Crisis and Leviathan (and nearly everyone then ignored), which emphasizes the complexity—by function, level, size, power, scope, and other attributes—of the state in a country such as the modern United States of America. This complexity is important for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is that it makes controlling the state in any coherent way or in accordance with any definite overall plan, not to speak of eliminating it, almost inconceivable, whether that control be attempted by a small group of conspirators or by huge groups of organized individuals, such as political parties or movements.

As if the foregoing were not daunting enough, consider how the people’s interests and ideological attachments to the state complicate the picture even further. In the United States, scores of millions of individuals and families depend on the state for employment, cash transfer payments, direct provision of goods and services, business subsidies, purchases of their products, monetary and other grants, and other privileges in forms too numerous even to summarize here. Scores of millions believe in the state; that is, they have the sort of loyalty to it that leads them to comply readily, sometimes even enthusiastically, with its edicts and to feed their own children into the maw of its endless wars. In many cases their ancestors led lives tied closely to the state and its varied enterprises, both martial and pacific. Their very identities attach to the blessed nation-state; they would rather think of themselves as Americans than as human beings. These identities, loyalties, and attachments are the real foundation on which the system’s kingpins rest their capacity to carry out their criminal enterprises—which, needless to say, neither they nor their legions of confederates, subordinates, and dependents consider to be criminal, regardless of their blatant violation of the natural law.

This is where confusion abounds, I believe, when people say we’re a democracy. Yes, we’re a democracy and yes, if you want to think so, we have the power to vote in or out people of our own volition. However, as Higgs said, there is this overwhelmingly large government bureaucracy therein; it is quite obvious that the voting process involved in a “democracy” is only surface deep. To truly change the government, it’s not enough to change the President or the members of Congress or representatives at the state and local level – although, to be sure, again, I think that helps – one has to change the fundamental workings of the government.

Additionally, the notion of a largely unresponsive-to-the-voting-process government bureaucracy is exactly why I think we only have one party in the United States: the big government party comprised of so-called conservatives (Republicans) and liberals (Democrats). They play up their “differences” for political theater, but in reality, they aren’t changing the warfare/welfare state we currently have (to put it simplistically, admittedly).

And how does one go about changing the bureaucracy? Well, your guess is as good as mine. I do know, at the very least, historically-speaking, that government bureaucracy was amassed over decades; it wasn’t something that arose over night. Therefore, as I see it, the only way to change it is through that same process of gradualism, which itself is brought upon by a cultural and intellectual revolution. Therein lies my difference with some an-caps and other libertarians; they favor revolution of the sort that “burns down the system.” I do not. I favor working within the system as best one can. That’s all we can do.


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