The Rise and Fall of the US Government

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Editors’ Note: We’re pleased to publish the article below, reprinted with permission of Washington Monthly magazine. Written by John Dilulio Jr., of the University of Pennsylvania, it reviews the most recent work of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the former neoconservative whose views are always provocative and informed by a comprehensive knowledge of history.

More than a book review, in examining Fukuyama’s theories, Dilulio’s essay also is a compelling and thoughtful analysis of the state of American liberal democracy, the current dysfunction of its government and what could be done to repair the damage wrought by greed, interference and ineptitude. We welcome your comments.

In 1985, Harvard University hosted a conference celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of political scientist Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. In that classic book, Hartz explained the virtual absence of European-style socialism in America as resulting from the total absence of European-style feudalism in America. My doctoral dissertation’s co-adviser, Samuel Huntington, prodded me to attend the conference, knowing I had read the book in his graduate political development seminar. Hartz, who died the next year, was not present. That was probably fortunate, because, being thirty years younger and at least thirty times brasher than I am today, I proceeded to attack key aspects of Hartz’s thesis — noting, among other things, that there were far greater class divisions in 18th- and 19th-century America than Hartz allowed. A senior Harvard faculty member, visibly perturbed by my take-no-prisoners critique of Hartz’s book, grumbled that I was “obviously” mistaken. “You claim to have found fleas on the lion,” he intoned, “but there is a lion beneath the fleas.”

I recalled that incident while reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest work, Political Order and Political Decay. In this book Fukuyama, also a student of Huntington’s, updates his mentor’s influential 1968 Political Order in Changing Societies, which argued for the importance of political institutions in the ability of developing countries to modernize. While there are many fleas on Fukuyama’s nearly 700-page tome, including historical glosses and overgeneralizations, none are even close to being fatal. Fukuyama is a true intellectual lion. (And he shares my take on Hartz.)

In the 1980s, Fukuyama, a Harvard-trained political scientist who worked at the RAND Corporation and in the U.S. State Department, was among the first analysts to foresee the Soviet Union’s fall and Germany’s reunification. In a 1989 essay in the National Interest, Fukuyama wondered whether we might be witnessing not just “the end of the Cold War” but “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

In 1992, in the best-selling The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama forecast that liberal democracy’s global march would deliver peace, prosperity, and personal security to billions, but he fretted that over time people might become so alienated by liberal democracy’s benefits and bounty as to “assert themselves in new and unforeseen ways,” and maybe even engage “in bloody prestige battles, this time with modern weapons.

Chart: Annual Federal Spending compared with Number of Federal Workers

Credit: Washington Monthly

Today, the brilliant and public-spirited Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Spogli Institute for International Studies, wears an older, wiser and more practical public intellectual’s clothes. In his 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, he meditated for nearly 600 pages on the biological bases of human sociality, the trek from the Neanderthal clan to the Napoleonic Code, and the global transition from tribal cultures to early nation-states.

Today, the brilliant and public-spirited Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Spogli Institute for International Studies, wears an older, wiser and more practical public intellectual’s clothes.
Now, in the second installment of this two-volume treatise, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama picks up where the French Revolution left off and proceeds to the present. While he stresses that liberal democracy is not “humanly universal,” he still believes that there is “a clear directionality to the process of political development” that favors liberal democracy. But, in stark contrast to The End of History and his concern over hypothetical last men and their possible discontents, in his latest book he is worried about liberal democracies not sustaining themselves and not reliably delivering peace, prosperity, and personal security to their peoples. As he writes, if “there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, whether aspiring or well established, it has been centered in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality of basic public services like education, health, and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.”

From Africa to Asia to the Americas, he frets, there is a political deficit wrought by a lack of “modern states that are capable, impersonal, well organized, and autonomous” rather than “weak and ineffective” (emphasis in the original).

“Modern” states, as opposed to what the sociologist Max Weber called “patrimonial” ones. In patrimonial states, Fukuyama explains, the ruler “used his family or household, and friends — oftentimes the warriors who helped him conquer the territory in the first place — to staff his administration” and run it almost exclusively for their benefit. By contrast, modern states are staffed by officials chosen on the basis of merit and expertise, and run for the sake of a broad public interest. Modern states succeed patrimonial ones by delegitimizing the tendency to favor family and friends and instituting civil service examinations, merit qualifications, and rules against bribery, corruption, and conflicts of interest.

But differences in history, culture, geography, and leadership produce differences in modern state building from one country or continent to the next. Most African nations, Fukuyama reckons, are badly afflicted by what he terms “neopatrimonialism”: each has “the outward form of a modern state, with a constitution … a legal system, and pretensions of impersonality, but the actual operation of government remains at core a matter of sharing state resources with family and friends.” In Turkey, Brazil, and some other nations, the problem is not so much neopatrimonialism as it is political institutions that are proving too rigid to adapt to social change. In the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, political violence remains sadly but stubbornly “integral … to the creation of modern states.”

Today’s most vexing governance problems, however, are to be found in well-established liberal democracies that are undergoing “repatrimonialization,” a term Fukuyama uses to describe the capture of ostensibly impersonal state institutions by powerful elites. Britain, Japan, and other liberal democracies each face serious challenges, but the United States, the world’s first and most advanced liberal democracy, has suffered the most from repatrimonialization. “While the American economy remains a source of miraculous innovation, American government is hardly a source of inspiration around the world at the present moment.”

That the federal government has become paralyzed, dysfunctional and captured by moneyed elites is, of course, not news. Fukuyama’s contribution is to situate this condition within a grand historical analysis of how nations and political systems advance and decline.
Despite the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons, America is safely past overt nepotism and other neopatrimonial practices. Instead, over the last half century, America’s political decay has been fueled by what Fukuyama characterizes as a new “tribalism” that authorizes influence peddling at the highest levels of modern politics. American government, Fukuyama declares, is now dominated by “interest groups that are able to effectively buy politicians with campaign contributions and lobbying.” This perfectly legal vote buying is an insidious form of “clientelism” practiced with huge sums of money and at a much larger scale than ever before. Congress is now controlled by politicians who raise money and win reelection by granting political favors to their supporters.

For example, high-priced lobbyists for Wall Street first devised the deregulation that made too-big-to-fail banks possible, and then fashioned the faux financial fix-it legislation that followed the 2008 economic crisis. These new laws featured a “highly complex stew of new regulations” that could not be well implemented and “would likely not solve the underlying … problem even if they were.” Similarly, Fukuyama parses the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka Obamacare, characterizing it as a 900-page “monstrosity” enacted on party-line votes and forged by “concessions and side payments made to interest groups, including doctors, insurance companies, and the pharmaceutical industry.”

But, as Fukuyama sees it, even worse than the buying of federal policies by moneyed interests are the bureaucracies that implement those policies. Citing substantial evidence from public administration specialists, he argues that the overall quality of the American government has been deteriorating steadily for more than a generation and that the US civil service has been “decomposing since the 1970s.” He invokes two reports by the National Commission on the Public Service (better known as the Volcker Commission), the first one released in 1989 and the second one released in 2003. The latter report described the federal workforce as under-trained and under-motivated, with its best workers underpaid and its worst workers overpaid.

Afflicted by deep polarization among elites and mass mistrust of government, America’s repatrimonialized republic has descended into what Fukuyama terms a “vetocracy,” a paralytic liberal democratic regime in which not even clear and present fiscal, foreign or other dangers elicit sound and timely policy decisions.

Capitol Hill by night, August 11, 2012. (Image: Flickr/ Paul Arps)

Capitol Hill by night, August 11, 2012. (Image: Flickr/ Paul Arps)

That the federal government has become paralyzed, dysfunctional and captured by moneyed elites is, of course, not news. Fukuyama’s contribution is to situate this condition within a grand historical analysis of how nations and political systems advance and decline. It is also noteworthy that his analysis runs counter to the views of most contemporary conservative thinkers, among whom Fukuyama is usually grouped. America’s dilemma is not that its central government is too powerful, says Fukuyama, but that it has grown too weak. He is right, though he largely misses, as do many, a major cause of this decline.

Fukuyama theorizes that there are three institutions that co-produce political order and that, when in some proper balance, tend to result in prosperous, well-governed liberal democratic regimes: the state and its bureaucratic machinery; the rule of law and its impartial administration; and the public accountability mechanisms generally associated with democratic norms, choices and elections. Hence, there’s nothing wrong in Denmark, Fukuyama’s iconographic example of an older “society that is prosperous, democratic, secure, well governed, and experiences low levels of corruption” because it has long managed to keep its modern “state, strong rule of law, and democratic accountability” mechanisms in near-perfect equilibrium.

Other nations, however, do not possess this balance, or even have all three institutions in fully evolved form. China, Fukuyama judges, has a strong central state bureaucracy — indeed, it was the first civilization to have one, some 2,000 years before the West — and leaders who, if not democratically accountable, have managed to stay focused on the basic needs of its citizens. What China lacks most, argues Fukuyama, is true rule of law, which in other nations evolved as an outgrowth of universalist religions and which Confucian China has also traditionally lacked. India, on the other hand, has a stronger rule of law and a remarkably successful democracy. But, like many other nations, it suffers from “a failure of the state” begat by “bureaucracies at local, state, and national levels” that remain either too corrupt or too incompetent to supply citizens with decent public services.

In political development terms, Fukuyama believes the United States, too, to be “trapped in a bad equilibrium.” It has long had a robust rule of law and a hardy, almost hyperactive, democratic accountability regime. But it now harbors a sprawling public sector without having a strong, competent, modern state with autonomous bureaucracies.

As he notes repeatedly, where political development is concerned, “sequencing … matters enormously.” In short, nations that fail to build strong state agencies before they democratize have a hard time doing so afterward. In America, respect for the rule of law was present at the nation’s creation. The country also democratized early, opening the vote to all white males in the 1820s, decades before any country in Europe. But it was relatively slow to create autonomous, impartial state bureaucracies thanks to a national temperament that militated against central governmental authority.

Instead, starting in the Jacksonian period, the Founders’ patrimonial “elite patronage system” was converted into “a mass clientelistic one” characterized by the “trading of votes and political support for individual benefits rather than programmatic policies.” Think of urban political bosses passing out Christmas turkeys, or the scenes in the recent movie Lincoln in which Honest Abe’s shadowy henchmen secure the support of lame-duck Democrat congressmen for the Thirteenth Amendment with offers of jobs as federal postmasters, and you get the idea. Clientism, Fukuyama observes, occurs “when democracy arrives before a modern state has had time to consolidate into an autonomous institution with its own supporting political coalition.” It is thus best understood as “an early form of democracy.”

Though some state building occurred through Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War, for decades America retained a clientelistic government by “courts and parties,” not a “centralized, bureaucratic, and autonomous state of the sort that had been created in Prussia, France, and Britain.” Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did the United States begin the decades-long process of central state building. But whereas in Europe as well as China, strong professionalized bureaucracies evolved as defenses against military threats, in America they arose from internal political struggle, specifically the Progressive Movement. Fukuyama credits Progressive reformers, allied intellectual elites, and their middle-class minions with sending America’s patrimonialism and clientelism packing, at least for a half century or so. He paints the Progressive political coalition as motivated by a “passionate moralism” centering on the “values of education, merit, organization, and honesty,” but also fueled by a revanchist desire to “recoup the social status” that their Anglo-Protestant predecessors had lost to “Jacksonian populism.”

The Progressives succeeded through measures that included the Pendleton Act of 1883, the expansion of the federal civil service system, and the dawn of professionalized state and local government agencies. Progressive reformers, and later those of the New Deal, “tried to construct a European-style administrative state.” But they did so against an ingrained national suspicion of “Big Government.”

Still, despite Progressive reform efforts that were backed by forceful leaders including Teddy Roosevelt, the “end of the patronage system at the federal level did not arrive until the middle of the twentieth century.” Even then, most Americans and their leaders mistrusted government and refused to “delegate to the government authority to make decisions in the manner of other democratic societies.”

The result was often agencies with insufficient autonomy from Congress and the courts to resist capture by powerful industries. Fukuyama’s example of a federal agency crippled from birth is the Interstate Commerce Commission, tasked in 1887 with regulating the railroads. From the first, it had “too little power.” By the time the ICC was abolished in 1996, it had gone from exercising too little power “to imposing an excessive regulatory burden.” He blames the ICC’s sorry record on “the design of the American state, with its complex system of checks and balances.”

By contrast, Fukuyama holds up the US Forest Service as a case study of a bureaucracy that began with integrity but decayed over time. The agency, he gushes, was “the premier example of American state building during the Progressive era,” a “shining example of a high-quality American bureaucracy,” and “the gold standard of American bureaucracies.” Situated within the Department of Agriculture, in 1905 the new agency replaced its patronage-ridden predecessor. It was staffed by “university-educated agronomists and foresters, chosen on the basis of merit and technical expertise.”

The “formative” issue in Progressive Era “American state building,” Fukuyama proclaims, “was bureaucratic autonomy: the idea that professionals in the [Forest Service] and not politicians in Congress should be the ones to make decisions on the allocations of public lands.” The agency’s first leader, Gifford Pinchot, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s, mobilized conservationists and beat back efforts by the ultra-powerful House speaker, “Czar” Joe Cannon, to make the agency a welcome mat for business interests. Pinchot, Fukuyama claims, “created a high-quality agency” with a single, clear-cut, and depoliticized mission, namely, “neither fire suppression nor conservation per se but rather the sustainable exploitation of forest resources — in other words, timber harvesting.”

As Fukuyama tells it, during its first half century the Forest Service was free from “congressional interference.” But in “the middle decades of the twentieth century,” Congress, “excluded from the micromanagement of land sales back in 1905, reinserted itself.” The Forest Service’s “clear, single mission was replaced by multiple and potentially conflicting mandates” that emanated from diverse congressional client groups including “consumers of timber, environmentalists, homeowners, western developers, young people seeking temporary jobs as firefighters,” and others. Congress added conflicting objectives to the agency’s traditional “timber exploitation” task.

As Congress multiplied its mandates, the agency’s leaders became enmeshed in battles like the one between environmentalists who favored a “let burn policy” and “homeowners living at the wildland-urban interface.” No longer shielded from such political crossfires by “a single, coherent mandate,” the agency’s workers succumbed to “recolonization by their clients” and “clung to old mandates even when both science and the society around them were changing.”

Thus, supposedly, did the once “small, cohesive agency” steadily “evolve into a large, balkanized one,” complete “with bureaucrats more interested in protecting their budgets and jobs than in the efficient performance of their mandates.” “The travails of the Forest Service,” Fukuyama concludes, are an “example of a broader phenomenon of political decay.”

It is perhaps inevitable that a thinker with such sweeping erudition as Fukuyama, whose interests range from thirteenth-century Mamluk slaveholders to the theories of Oswald Spengler, might get a few things wrong. His narrative of the Forest Service is an especially significant example, for it leads him to misconstrue the actual way bureaucracies in America behave, and to miss one of the most profound reasons for their recent decay.

While timber harvesting was once unquestionably its job one, the Forest Service never truly had a single mission. Fukuyama cites Herbert Kaufman’s 1960 classic, The Forest Ranger, regarding how the agency succeeded in building a cohesive culture even though “the individual forest rangers live in highly dispersed locations.” But the very pages of Kaufman’s book that he cites open a chapter headed “The Size and Complexity of the Forest Service Job.” Kaufman made clear that the job had long since included not only timber harvesting but fire control, watershed management, livestock grazing, insect and disease control, and more. Indeed, Kaufman’s chapter on “Challenges to Unity” delineates how the rangers struggled to avoid “capture” by one or another competing external client group, and how congressional in-reaching for various constituencies routinely got prompt attention and caused “reverberations throughout the hierarchy of the Forest Service.”

In Fukuyama’s sweeping American political decay narrative, the post-1970 federal bureaucracy has “moved away from the Weberian ideal of an energetic and efficient organization staffed by people chosen for their ability and technical knowledge,” and the Forest Service is his Exhibit A. But neither the Forest Service, nor, to my knowledge, any other federal bureau, was ever truly organized around any such ideal in the first place.

Consider, for example, Fukuyama’s too-pat take on the so-called Pinchot-Ballinger dispute, which resulted in Pinchot being fired by President William Taft. Fukuyama asserts that “old-style corruption” led to the firing. Richard Ballinger was Taft’s secretary of the interior, and was opposed by conservationists because he favored reopening certain federal lands to commercial uses. An Interior official charged that he had violated federal law by opening Alaskan coal fields to powerful private mining interests. Two Forest Service officials backed the whistle-blower, and Pinchot backed them. Fukuyama notes that in 1911, Congress passed a law (the Weeks Act) that “constituted the final consolidation of the bureau’s powers” over public lands. He cites Pinchot’s 1947 autobiography, praises the “charismatic early leader” for creating “an institution” that survived “his departure,” and acknowledges that Pinchot was a “political operator” who had “spent years cultivating a wide range of groups.”

But Fukuyama might also have noted that those same interest groups energetically cultivated Chief Pinchot and his top Forest Service aides. Pinchot defied his Agriculture Department administrative superiors, ignored a direct appeal from Taft (aka the chief executive), and violated agency protocols by writing a letter on the Ballinger matter to a sitting member of Congress, who then publicized the missive on the Senate floor. In fact, following several in-depth investigations, the charges against Ballinger were dismissed. In 1911, Taft fired Pinchot for administrative insubordination. Unfazed by his firing, Pinchot politicked his way to a post as Pennsylvania’s forestry boss, and he later won two terms as Pennsylvania’s pro-Prohibition governor. Pinchot also made three unsuccessful bids for a U.S. Senate seat and failed on his third bid for the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion.

In sum, Pinchot practiced Progressive politics, high and low, as a vote-seeking vocation. If anything, Pinchot’s 16 successors as chief, including the nine who served after 1970 right down to the present director, Thomas L. Tidwell, a 37-year veteran of the agency who started out as a district ranger, were closer to being professional, nonpartisan public administrators than Pinchot ever was. Even during its Progressive reform salad days and five “Weberian ideal” decades, the Forest Service was about as close to being a Prussian-style bureaucracy as its iconic Smokey the Bear was to being a real talking bear.

Historical gloss aside, Fukuyama is correct that today’s Forest Service is a “highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools.” But, contrary to his analysis, the present-day Forest Service’s poor performance is not due mainly to bureaucrats protecting their jobs, fluffing their budgets, clinging to old mandates, ducking behind union bosses, or factionalizing internally in ways that reflect capture by competing external client groups, each with its sponsors in Congress or its protectors in the courts.

Rather, today’s Forest Service is an agency with a $6 billion budget and about 30,000 full-time workers — 5,000 fewer than it had two decades ago, spread across two dozen administrative units, nine regions, seven research stations, and several Washington, DC, offices. These federal bureaucrats are responsible for the “multiple-use management” of nearly 200 million acres of public lands.

Today’s Forest Service depends heavily on volunteers (more than 100,000 a year), part-time workers, and for-profit contractors and grantees. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office warned about “the cumulative effect that outsourcing a large number of federal jobs could have on” the agency’s “firefighting capability” and related functions. In 2010, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General echoed that warning, as did another GAO report in 2011, saying that “a lack of qualified firefighters due to retirements and inadequate planning could jeopardize the Forest Service’s ability to accomplish its wildland fire suppression mission, resulting in loss of more property and natural resources and increased safety risks to fire suppression personnel.”

As documented in a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service, between 2010 and 2012 the number of acres burned more than doubled, to about nine million, and the number of structures destroyed increased more than sixfold, to about 5,200. Yet in recent years, the agency has been losing veteran workers faster than it can possibly replace them, its core fire prevention/suppression workforce has not grown, and it has lacked sufficient firefighting aircrafts.

By the same token, a 2013 GAO report detailed how, despite its extensive use of “volunteer labor,” the Forest Service now has a grave and growing “maintenance backlog” on more than a third of the 158,000 trail miles that not only service recreational users but also serve as “access for timber harvesting or firefighting,” and the time the agency’s full-time workers spend “managing volunteers can decrease the time” they can focus on other tasks.

Those neglected other tasks include overseeing the agency’s contractors. A 2014 GAO report documented that the Forest Service makes only hit-or-miss use of performance-based contracts, and does not “consistently assess contractor performance as required.” Together with two other USDA agencies, in fiscal years 2009 through 2013 the Forest Service failed to follow basic federal contract oversight protocols to the tune of nearly $800 million of the funds obligated to contracts for assorted professional and support services.

In recent surveys, most Forest Service employees have indicated that while they believe in their storied agency’s multiple-use mission, like what they do, and respect their immediate supervisors, they lack confidence in their leadership and are to varying degrees demoralized.

Much more important than the size of government,” observes Fukuyama, “is its quality.” Amen; and immediately following his Forest Service saga, Fukuyama notes that while “the mandates on government to do various things, from reducing child poverty to fighting terrorism, have indeed expanded dramatically,” the “actual size of the federal workforce has been capped at approximately 2.25 million since the end of World War II, and subject to repeated bouts of downsizing.” He continues, “What has expanded are, first, a series of authorities that perform public functions while remaining separate from government, and an army of unaccountable contractors who do everything from providing cafeteria services to protecting diplomats to managing the computer systems for the National Security Agency.”

Unfortunately, Fukuyama does not hold that thought about government growth through contracting out. Had he mined and refined his insight about outsourcing, he might have realized how much America’s post-1970 political decay owes to the ongoing explosion in what public administration scholar Donald Kettl has termed “government by proxy.”

Fukuyama is right about Congress being the main culprit behind the nation’s political decay. But he needed to puzzle over why Congress has record-low approval ratings yet sky-high incumbent reelection rates. The answer is that, for all the mass public’s anti-Washington sentiments, most American voters are getting precisely what they want from the federal government, namely, ever more benefits without ever higher taxes and without ever bigger bureaucracies.

As the great American federalism scholar Martha Derthick has observed, “Congress loves action — it thrives on policy proclamation and goal setting — but it hates bureaucracy and taxes, which are the instruments of action,” so it has institutionalized debt financing while “turning over the bulk of administration to the state governments or any organizational instrumentality it can lay its hands on whose employees are not counted on the federal payroll.”

Echoing Kettl and Derthick, in a little book published in 2014, Bring Back the Bureaucrats, I argued that for a half century now America’s huge and hugely dysfunctional government has worked by borrowing billions of dollars a year from foreigners and from Americans who are not yet born, and by hiring tens of millions of Americans each year who are never counted on the federal payroll. Congress masks government’s huge spending by debt financing, and it masks government’s huge scope by paying three types of federal proxies — state and local government workers, for-profit business contractors, and nonprofit organization grantees — to administer federal policies, programs and regulations.

America’s post-1970 big government is actually a big intergovernment by proxy. The World Bank financial data that Fukuyama cites measures only the national government’s taxing and spending in relation to gross domestic product. All told, federal, state, and local government tax revenues are equivalent to about a third of GDP, while combined government spending has in recent years hovered around 40 percent of GDP (about 24 percent federal and 16 percent subnational). Adjusted for cross-national differences in accounting practices, total government spending in the United States as a percentage of GDP is just a couple points below the average for the seventeen so-called euro area democracies.

Today, more than two dozen federal departments and agencies spend a combined total of over $600 billion a year on more than 200 intergovernmental grant programs for state and local governments. Washington also spends over $500 billion a year on contracts with for-profit firms. About a third of the nonprofit sector’s more than $2 trillion in annual revenues now flows from some government source.

The federal workforce was smaller in 2013 than it was in 26 of the 53 years since 1960, and much smaller than it was in 1960 relative to annual federal expenditures (about one-fourth as large), pages in the Federal Register (about a fifth as large), and the total US population (less than half as large). Whether in the Forest Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or many other understaffed federal agencies, is it any wonder that federal workers do not always seem up to their jobs and often report being demoralized?

While the post-1970 federal civilian workforce has hovered around two million full-time bureaucrats, the state and local government workforce roughly tripled, to more than 18 million. Many subnational government workers function as de facto federal bureaucrats. The Department of Defense alone obligates more than $300 billion a year to private contractors. The DOD has roughly 800,000 civilian workers plus the equivalent of some 700,000 full-time contract employees. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a roughly $800 billion “stimulus bill” that dedicated about $250 billion to more than 80,000 federal grants, contracts, or loans to state and local governments, for-profit businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Washington’s proxy-government clientelism consists of state and local government officials, heads of for-profit corporations, and leaders of nonprofit organizations that incessantly advocate for federal policies, programs, and regulations that they are paid to administer or co-administer, or hope to. For instance, drug companies virtually wrote certain Obamacare provisions, and during one two-year period organizations that won federal funds to implement Obamacare spent more than $100 million on lobbying.

Fukuyama is harder than he should be on public employee unions. Neither they nor the bureaucrats they represent should be blamed for budget deficits or performance failures. And contrary to what assorted antigovernment crazies have claimed, further clipping the federal workforce would have no far-reaching fiscal effects. Indeed, eliminating the entire federal civilian workforce and its payroll (about $250 billion a year in wages and benefits) would save far less than the federal government now spends each year just on Medicare beneficiaries (about $600 billion), and less than it now spends each year just on for-profit defense contractors (more than $300 billion).

The federal civil service is overloaded, not bloated. The failed Federal Emergency Management Agency response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 hit when FEMA had only about 2,100 employees and had recently lost many senior managers. The badly bollixed launch of Obamacare health exchanges in 2013 involved scores of contractors and was overseen by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal center with fewer than 5,000 employees. The Internal Revenue Service fails to collect more than $300 billion a year in taxes it knows are owed, in part because it lacks the necessary personnel.

Fukuyama is correct that America has never had a fully “centralized, bureaucratic, and autonomous state”; but he is wrong to imply that America needs one. What America does need is a federal public administration workforce that relies less on proxies and more on full-time bureaucrats who are well selected, well trained, well motivated, well rewarded financially, and well respected by one and all.

American government is decaying mainly because it has too few federal bureaucrats chasing after too many federal proxies, monitoring too many federal grants and contracts, and handling too many dollars. The way forward is to de-leverage the federal government by defunding its nonessential proxies and relying more on full-time federal civil servants to directly administer federal policies, programs, and regulations. Over time, hiring more federal bureaucrats while pruning proxies would result in a federal government less beset by grant-seeking and contract-mongering special interests, more “faithfully executed” by the executive branch, and less bollixed by the Congress and its dozens of massively dysfunctional administrative oversight committees and subcommittees.

There are many steps on the path to reversing America’s political decay by proxy. We need to reinvent federal grants-in-aid to the states, drain the federal for-profit contracting swamps, and wring more public value from grants to nonprofits. But we also quite simply need to hire more federal bureaucrats. The federal bureaucracy is more nearly the solution than the problem. In Bring Back the Bureaucrats, I crudely calculated that we need about one million more full-time federal workers by 2035 in order to serve the public, stop draining its purse, start improving performance, and create an actual system of national public administration.

America’s political decay is fed daily by public disdain for public servants and fueled each election season by bovine congresspersons in both parties who score points with voters by bashing “the bureaucrats” and “running against Washington.” The first step toward slowing or reversing America’s political decay is to recognize how for-profit contractors and other administrative proxies have rigged the system in their own interest, expand the federal civil service, and start treating federal bureaucrats as if our public well-being depended on them — for it does.

Copyright 2014 Washington Monthly Publishing, LLC

John DiIulio-1
John J. Dilulio Jr., is the Frederic Fox Leadership professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania/ He is a member of the National Academy of Public Administration and served as first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush.
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