Blake Emerson –
In the early weeks of the Trump presidency, Steve Bannon declared that one of its principal tasks would be the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Though Bannon has since left the White House, this project has so far proved one of its most enduring preoccupations. Administrative bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, and Federal Communications Commission have reversed course on key progressive initiatives such as reductions in carbon emissions, healthcare insurance enrollment, police reform, redress of campus sexual harassment and assault, and net neutrality.
The tenured civil service is being sidelined, or even targeted by opposition research firms hired by their own departments. The recently enacted tax bill promises to starve the government of the resources to sustain the remaining pillars of the welfare state, namely Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court casts doubt on the future of a core principle of administrative law—that courts should defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of statutory ambiguities.
This effort to rein-in the regulatory state has been at the center of the conservative agenda since the 1930s, and ascendant since Reagan. It overlaps with a broader neoliberal policy framework that many centrist Democrats share, which remains skeptical of the public provision of goods and services, and “command-and-control” regulation. Bill Clinton’s bipartisan mantra that “the era of big government is over” has steadily eroded regulatory and welfare institutions, and fulfilled its own prophecy that bureaucrats are incapable of promoting the public good.
As we near the pinnacle of this era of governance, Bannon’s declaration throws into relief a constituent feature of any viable counter-movement. If we are to develop a political program capable of rescuing the American polity from private domination, economic inequality, and caste hierarchy, we must think through what kind of administrative apparatus could carry that program into action. One that sees its role primarily as correcting market failures, “nudging” individuals to make decisions the expert deems wise, and maximizing aggregate social welfare, is likely to simply reproduce the logic of private enterprise within government.
The hegemonic framework for policy reasoning today—cost-benefit analysis—attempts to approximate market pricing where it does not exist, asking, for example, how much people are “willing to pay” to avoid certain kinds of harms. Such methods can be useful in ensuring that decision-makers fully take into account the economic effects of proposed courses of action. But they instill a regulatory ideology where the model of formally free, reciprocal, and competitive exchange predominates over the practice of joint action motivated by a common aim. We come to approach even political rights and obligations as priced commodities rather than as products of either reasoned agreement or social struggle. Instead of a cost-benefit state, we need a state that simulates an egalitarian society and stimulates a democratic politics.