One basic question is at the foundation of political philosophy: what should government do? Or perhaps a different formulation is clearer: what is government for?
People who engage with that question begin with the basics: governments were created to prevent some citizens from harming others. (In that pesky “state of nature,” the strong can take advantage of the weak.) That seemingly simple formulation, it turns out, is not really so simple, because it raises a very thorny question: what’s the nature and extent of harm that government should be empowered to prevent or ameliorate?
Even harms that most of us consider obvious turn out to be less than simple. Government should certainly enforce laws against murder, for example, but how do we define “murder”? Must it be intentional? What about self-defense? Warfare?
When we get to other kinds of harm, the arguments mount. Local ordinances against smoking in restaurants and bars are relatively recent reactions to newly recognized harms from passive smoke–and those rules have encountered considerable resistance. What about seat belts? Does a refusal to “buckle up” harm anyone other than the unbuckled person who gets into an accident? Can the government that insists you buckle up also make you eat your vegetables?
When does legitimate authority become the nanny state?
Political philosophers have debated these issues at least since the Enlightenment, and most of us recognize that modern life has made them much more difficult. People living on widely scattered farms where they grow their own food require fewer rules than people who live in cities and depend upon government agencies to ensure the safety of the foods on their grocery shelves.
One of America’s many, many ideological divisions grows out of the debate about government’s role in protecting us from a wide variety of previously non-existent harms: airplanes colliding in mid-air, contaminated foods on those grocery shelves, pollutants discharged into our rivers and streams, internet scams. What is generally called “the administrative state” has grown out of the need for government to monitor and prevent such harms.
Which brings me to the current attacks on that administrative state. As participants in one recent podcast argued,
Since the Reagan administration, conservatives and their allies in the business community have had regulatory agencies in their crosshairs. Institutions like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA; the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA; and the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA—all aim to protect the health and safety of the citizenry. But the agencies, and the dedicated civil servants who work at them, are seen in some quarters as examples of unnecessary executive authority. Steve Bannon even called “the deconstruction of the administrative state” a main goal of the Trump administration.
The obvious question is: what would the United States look like without the administrative state? On How to Save a Country, the hosts asked that question of K. Sabeel Rahman. Rahman was associate administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Biden administration until earlier this year and is the co-founder and co-chair of the Law and Political Economy Project, former president of the think tank Demos, and the author of several books on democracy.
The older argument was between progressives who believe that poverty and inequality are harms that government should address through mechanisms like Social Security and Medicare, and the (usually privileged) folks who disagree.
The podcast focused on how that argument has changed, and why today’s Right is so focused on dismantling the “administrative state.” What do they really mean when they say “drain the swamp?”‘Rahman addressed that question.
Our new dangers always have their seeds in the old, but I do think there’s something different and maybe especially dangerous about the moment we’re in now. There’s absolutely a good faith understandable set of debates that we have been having forever and we’ll continue to have about the appropriate reach and scope of government from liberal versus libertarian standpoints. And that’s fine. What I think is not fine is the legal guerrilla warfare that I think we’re starting to see … I don’t think it’s just libertarianism of the familiar kind. This is really a white supremacist ideology wearing a different set of clothes. It’s about dismantling the parts of government that are trying to create a more inclusive, egalitarian society and leaving unchecked and unshackled the parts of government that terrorize communities of color. The Bannonites are not at all troubled by ICE and CBP and the way the Trump administration treated migrants at the border.
There is much more in the podcast–much of it about the fact that the complexity of modern harms and the acknowledged deficits in administrative processes require officials with expertise.
It’s worth a listen.