Faith and the Administrative State

Faith and the Administrative State

Over the years, we’ve spent a great deal of time and energy trying to understand – and even, occasionally, to explain – why Max Weber’s detailed description of bureaucracy, its characteristics, and its functions fails so miserably to explain the reality of the American administrative state.  Weber insisted, time and again, that bureaucracy, as he had observed it, was always and in every situation directed in its course of actions by the government sovereign.  Bureaucracies may be composed of experts in various fields, and they may have a long list of standard written procedures to ensure fairness, consistency, and (relative) efficiency, but they are nevertheless subject to the direction of political forces and respond to the commands of political leaders.  Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen, according to Weber.

This is clearly not the case, however, in the United States, where the federal bureaucracy in particular appears to have a mind of its own and often acts in contravention of the public will, particularly when that will favors with deregulation, cutting the size of government, or restricting the extent of administrative influence.  Put simply, the American federal government should, in observation-based theory, do what the head of its branch of government – the Executive Branch – wants it to do.  It shouldn’t follow a policy agenda of its own, especially if that agenda contradicts the will of people and their elected chief executive.  Yet it does so, inarguably.  The question is, “why?”

Most of our efforts at explaining the administrative state have focused on the likes of Woodrow Wilson, and his Enlightenment-driven belief in the reason-based “rule of experts,” and on Weber’s observance-based “ideal type.”  Neither of these has provided much of a satisfactory answer to this question.

And so, today, we’re going to take a (very) brief look at the ideas not merely expounded upon, but also codified by the chronicler of Progressivism, Herbert Croly.  One could, of course, write an entire book on Croly and his importance in American politics or, at the very least, an entire chapter of a book (as will appear here).  But for our purposes today, just a few thoughts should get to the point we’re trying to make.

First, Croly was an enormous advocate of “reform,” which is to say that he was an ardent opponent of the constitutional order as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He rejected the Founders’ views, railed against their Constitution, and viewed devotion to the nation’s founding principles in the same way that his Enlightenment predecessors viewed religious devotion – insisting that it was nothing more than superstitious nonsense.

Second, as we say, Croly was the chronicler of Progressivism, which is to say that he was a journalist, was the founder of The New Republic magazine, and was the author of an incredibly influential book called The Promise of American Life.  When the book was published in 1909, it served to collect and organize an ideology of “Progressivism” from the mess of reformist ideas that existed previously.  It influenced two American presidents profoundly – Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  Most importantly, it changed American politics forever.

Third, Croly was nuts.

Croly and his father David were the two Americans most genuinely affected by the “Religion of Humanity” that was proposed by the French utopian positivist Auguste Comte.  Comte tried desperately to articulate a purely secular view of the world and to fashion a secular religion derived from it.  Yet his positivism was, in form and substance, very reminiscent of Medieval Europe’s first great millenarian heresy – Joachim of Fiore’s 12th century teaching on the “eternal Gospel,” in which all of history was divided into three epochs, those of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, the last of which would bring about man’s salvation.  Comte too saw three epochs, the “age of religion,” which was dominated by superstition; “the age metaphysics;” which was more rational but was still superstition-based; and the “age of science,” in which man’s eternal happiness would be guaranteed by science (of course), the only “authentic” form of knowledge.

For his part, younger Croly shared Comte’s “faith” in science and also shared Marx’s belief that history was propelled by scientific principles that could not be altered by men.  Unlike Marx, however, who saw the “government” as an enemy to be overthrown and replaced by the people (the infamous dictatorship of the proletariat), Croly saw the government as an ally, the supreme tool to advance civilization’s progress through science.

In time, Croly advocated Progressivism as the new civic religion of the United States.  As we have noted in these pages endlessly (and others far smarter than we have noted more eloquently elsewhere) there are two restraints on man’s behavior: religion and the state.  Contemporary leftism insists that religion should have no influence at all on behavior and, hence, the state should be large enough and powerful enough to control everything.  Croly’s formulation was a little different: he believed that the law should be considered irrelevant, while faith – faith in Progressivism – should be the sole arbiter of acceptable behavior.

“A democracy,” Croly wrote, “becomes courageous, progressive ascendant just in so far as it dares to have faith, and just in so far as it can be faithful without ceasing to be inquisitive.  Faith in things unseen and unknowable is as indispensible to a progressive democracy as it is to an individual Christian.  In the absence of faith, a democracy must lean, as the American democracy has leaned in the past, on some specific formulation of a supposedly or temporarily righteous law; but just in proportion as it has attained faith it can dispense with any such support.”  Or in other words: if everyone will just buy into the faith of Progressivism, we will no longer need to be governed by the archaic laws of men, like the Founders, who lack foresight.

Needless to say, this flips the entire formulation of government on its head, making it a purely faith-based exercise.  It also explains how American progressives can claim to be in favor of equality under the law, even as they argue strenuously against the law’s equal application.  They don’t really believe in the “law.”  They believe in religion that cloaks itself as law.  In short, the ideology underpinning the Progressive belief system is based on faith alone, faith in the “Religion of Humanity” as updated and amended by Croly.

Now, as you may know, presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has called for an end to lifetime employment in the federal bureaucracy.  He has proposed enacting term limits – 8 years – on federal public employment.  He is doing this in part because it’s good politics.  Republicans tend to dislike Washington and its “pointy-headed” bureaucrats.  He’s doing this in part because he believes it is good policy, i.e. he wants to end “the permanent state.”  And while he is unlikely to ever say it out loud, we think he is doing this in part because he understands the religious history and nature of progressive statism and believes that the federal bureaucracy is the heart of that faith.  We’re not the only ones to have written books on this stuff, after all.

So, why don’t American bureaucrats behave as Weber suggested they would?  Because American bureaucrats are influenced by something other than the rationality of organizational behavior.  They are influenced by the uniquely American religion of Progressivism, which combines the arrogance of the technocratic state (the cult of expertise) with the righteousness of religious devotion.

American bureaucrats are not German bureaucrats, and nor are they French or British bureaucrats.  They are an entirely different breed of animal, thanks largely to Herbert Croly.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.