Conservatives have, for decades now, decried the ideological capture of many of our regulatory institutions. Our concern is warranted, but far too often the debate breaks down into accusations of a “deep state” bent on oppressing conservatives. If we want to make real change—and win the argument—we cannot allow ourselves to be baited into such wild accusations. Instead, we need to address the roots of the issue, buried deep in the structures of these institutions themselves.
To start, let’s begin with a broad assumption; all humans have bias. All of us. Yes, even you. Political, religious, sports, food, philosophy, no matter the subject, all humans have some bias. No one is perfectly neutral, no matter how hard they try, and we shouldn’t assume anyone can be. This is important, because of a second broad assumption we can make: government, at its core, represents a monopoly on the use of force. It is, in layman’s terms, just a big gun.
The reason this matters, and the reason it relates to the first point, is because when we choose our style of governance we are choosing whose bias we allow to influence the gun. In a democracy, the only people who are allowed to choose where the gun is pointed are those beholden to the will of the people, i.e., the Congress and the president. Unless the position is elected or appointed by someone who has been elected, there should be no room for bias.
When it comes to bureaucratic matters, these points are important. Because of meritocratic reforms designed to stop widespread turnover in the administrative state passed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the bureaucracy has become largely entrenched by design. Because of the way administrative agencies are set up—largely on the backs of delegations of legislative powers through vague, undefined mandates—these agencies are given room for the bias of their workers to appear. The combination of this bias with both the entrenchment of the bureaucracy alongside a natural impetus for institutions to act upon their mandates has led to these agencies crystallizing into a leftward tilt. It has politicized, so to speak, due to inherent structural incentives to do so, and that politicization is not easily fixed due to its entrenchment by design.
This is a problem. In a democratic society, you can either have a politicized bureaucracy, one answerable to the public through presidential elections and therefore unstable, or you can have a bureaucracy that is entrenched and meritocratic, and therefore stable but forced into neutrality. You cannot, as we have today, have both.
The solution, then, seems to be to remove one or the other. If you want to remove the entrenchment—and leave yourself with a politicized, but electorally answerable, bureaucracy—then you’re advocating for a return to the spoils system. While that is a justifiable approach, and one that has been proposed in recent memory, the fact of the matter is that such a tactic would lead to mass firings in DC every 4-8 years. In the 21st century, with everything the administrative state is tasked with doing, that sort of instability is no way to run a country, and there are no guarantees of continued electoral success. Removing politicization, then, is where our focus should lie.
We must attack the root of the problem—the ability for bias to manifest itself through policy. Right now, these agencies can act on their own. If we fix that and return these legislative powers to Congress, then the politicization will cease to exist. An agency cannot be biased if it is simply charged with law enforcement (so long as there are strict guardrails in place, anyway).
Governing institutions must be held accountable through the electoral process. Right now, our administrative agencies are designed to be above that. If we want to fix that problem, and actually reform these institutions, we need to take a good hard look at the reasons these problems have arisen in the first place. As conservatives, we need to understand and explain why this has happened, rather than just railing against it, if we are to imagine what must come next.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.