A feature of modern society is the vast administrative state that manages every aspect of modern life. Modern people take it for granted, as they have never known any other way to live, other than being guided by massive bureaucracies. No one alive today remembers a time when there was not a bureaucrat behind every bush ready to shout instructions or warnings. A big part of what the paleocons call “managerialism” is the vast system of administration that runs society.
It is tempting to say that the Romans had a big administrative state. Diocletian expanded the empire’s civil and military administration. He established administrative centers around the empire, especially near the borders, in order to extend control from Rome to all areas of the empire. He is often referred to as the father of bureaucracy and what we think of as civil administration. People may also point to Byzantium, which expanded this concept into a complex form of rule.
There are two big differences between these older forms of government bureaucracy and what we live under today. One is the old system was not built around an ideology like we see now. Our administrative state is built around the idea that society can be managed scientifically by an army of experts. The other difference is the modern administrative state is about training the citizen to achieve his fullest potential within the liberal democratic order, to be a good liberal democrat.
Interestingly, the administrative state in modern liberal democracies looks and acts much like the bureaucracy that evolved with the Soviet system. Both were driven by ideology and both were designed to micromanage the life of the people. The fascist systems that sprung up in the interwar years showed the signs of developing an administrative state as well. Like communism and liberal democracy, fascism embraced the rational management of society.
The other not so obvious similarity between liberal democracy and communism is their respective administrative states evolved as a response to democracy. Running a country where everyone has a say can only be done if the overwhelming majority are saying the same thing. Therefore, a primary duty of the state is to train people to hold the same beliefs, to share the same common sense. The administrative state is as much about promoting ideology as administration.
Something else that is unique to the modern age is the scale and reach of the state in terms of its ability to control activity. Those old forms of imperial bureaucracy were mostly built around protecting the interests if private rulers. Vast swaths of life were left to the people to sort for themselves. In modern systems, the state protects the interest of everyone, so the activity of everyone is heavily regulated. 19th century prisons offered more freedom than the modern Western democracy.
When he was inaugurated, Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time, we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.” Those words were rooted in Reagan’s reading of people we now call paleo-conservatives, who were early critics of managerialism.
Fast forward to now and what is called conservatism is a celebration of the administrative state. In the Bush years, they were pushing what they called “big government conservatism” which was an explicit endorsement of scientific management of society. Their claim was that they could harness the power of the administrative state to achieve what they claimed were conservative ends. Green eyeshade conservatism had given way to administrative conservatism.
Covid has revealed that the overwhelming majority of people in modern Western democracies just accept that their fate is in the hands of the state. The proper response to Covid was to redirect resources to hospitals to treat sick people, but otherwise let nature take its course. In the administrative state, no aspect of life is left unmanaged, so an army of experts was unleashed to put nature back in her bottle. The crisis of Covid is that nature won and the administrative state failed.
The crisis of the administrative state began to form up on the horizon at the end of last year as the economy began to do weird things. Prices for consumer goods started to spike and the supply chain began to break down. It was assumed that modern monetary management had made inflation a relic of the past. An army of experts trained in our best universities managed the supply chain, so goods and services could be efficiently managed in response to economic conditions.
Even more bizarrely, the labor markets no longer make any sense, according to the rules of the economic elites. Millions of people have left the workforce despite millions of unfilled jobs. Wages have started to creep up, but that has not had any impact on the employment situation. Of course, rising wages and rising retail prices is exactly what modern economic planners said was no longer possible. As with Covid, nature seems to be resisting the efforts of our experts.
The reason that the vast administrative state has been accepted by people is it looked like it was working as promised. The various financial crisis did not result in bread lines like they did in the past. Instead, men in suits pulled levers in the Federal Reserve and Treasury to navigate around the crisis. The retail economy was brimming with new products and services, making life more comfortable. Managerialism has been accepted because it seemed to be working.
The question that has never been tested is whether the administrative state can withstand an internal crisis. Managing through a natural disaster is a very different thing than managing an irreconcilable contradiction within the system itself. This is what the administrative state is now facing. If the problem of this age is the system, there is no systemic solution. In fact, every effort by the system to address the crisis is seen as contributing to the crisis.
This is what brought down the Soviet system. All systems become sclerotic over time, as any software engineer will tell you. The social software of the Soviet empire became so burdened with patches and workarounds that it eventually crashed. The software of a society is the internal logic of it. When those rules begin to fail everyone questions the system itself. This sets of a dynamic where the system fails, a patch is made and confidence declines until eventually no one trusts the system at all.
We may be seeing something similar with liberal democracy. In order to justify itself, it looks for crises to manage, often creating them, but lurching from crisis to crisis is making it less competent at the basics. As people begin to lose trust in the software of liberal democracy, the system administrators are releasing poorly thought out updates and lecturing the users about their conduct. The result is a spiral of increasing incompetence and decreasing trust in the system.
At the heart of the current crisis is a question never asked. That is, can the administrative state survive its own failures. A bad king in a monarchy can be replaced by the next in line. The bad office holder in a republic can voted out of office in favor of someone new. What happens when vast swaths of the administrative state have become gangrenous? How is that addressed. How are the rotten bits removed and who is given the authority to remove them?
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