The Administrative State

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.


  1. Even Republicans can understand that large corporations have many highly compensated executives to run the business. Perhaps they can extend that knowledge from corporations to the world’s largest, our government. If they thought more about corporations they could realize that corporations also require built in Legislative (policy formation) and Judicial Branches as well as the Executive to create internal “rules” and translate them to employees. Collectively it’s all necessary. Individually, government and corporate workers can be argued ad infinitum.

  2. This reminds me of how the Orange Haired menace fired the people who were manning a federal agency that was set up to respond to a pandemic. “We can always hire these people if we need them later” he claimed. Idiots in charge will not bode well for us.

  3. This is starting off on what appears to be a tangent from your statement ” the strong can take advantage of the weak.” and it’s corollary, ” Survival of the fittest.” Survival of the fittest was not even included in the first edition of The Origin of Species, but was added to a later edition. The idea of competition in nature was definitely there, and is very real, but even Darwin recognized that competition was only one side of the coin. The other side, relationship, cooperation, reciprocity, Darwin recognized was even more prevalent in nature than competition. There is a strong and rapidly expanding movement to come back into relatinship, cooperation and reciprocity with nature, and with one another. To stop the insanity that the only value of a tree comes when you cut it down, or the only value of a piece of land is what you can grow on it or dig out of it, as well as the insanity that says how you must act if you want to be acceptable in middle class society. All of the problems you talk about come out of seeing ourselves in competition with one another, of what you called, when your spoke at my UU church a few years ago, the tension between freedom and belonging. But that tension largely come from what the Republicans are trying to take us back to – a culture that tells us who we are to be and how we are to act. That culture comes from patriarchy, which is trying to control us by dividing us into groups and setting us against one another. The culture we have been moving towards is one that truly believes that democracy is about each of us doing as we like as long as and until we are impinging on the rights of others to do the same. I think most of us are probably middle class. One of my least favorite things about being “middle class” is that fact that it’s OK to make fun of someone’s actions by mocking them, by making others laugh. And that is generally used to tell people that they don’t belong, that they aren’t “acting like a middle class person is supposed to act. I mentioned my UU Church earlier. Because we are a bit weird, refusing to tell people what to believe and instead asking us to follow 7 principles that are about repecting one another and the world we live, after some discussion, those of us in our church have decided that we don’t feel the tension between our freedom and our belonging in our church that most people seem to feel. And that is an important expample of why we need to keep moving forward to compassion and respect for one another and the world we live in..

  4. The libertarian “swamp” means any part of government that can cause harm to businesses. Period. The IRS is considered a swamp because they are perceived as enforcing laws that equalize our economic life – taking from the rich to feed the poor. The masses need our regulatory agencies, and we need them to have teeth. Otherwise, the economic wolves (as Jefferson noted) will take advantage of societal members. It’s also why we need a free press with teeth.

    If these agencies are neutered, they will be steamrolled by the economic wolves. You’ll only have lambs governing the lambs while the wolves take from the flock at will. It’s become such a weakened state that the wolf pack includes lawyers and judges. The wolves control the press, the administrative state, and the judicial state, making it hard to hold wolves accountable for being wolves. 😉

  5. So many people as so ignorant about what most parts of the government do for them, even the pieces they have direct interaction, like the IRS, there seems to be total ignorance.

    Nobody liked it when it would take hours to get an answer to a tax question by calling the IRS. Under Trump, the IRS had an 80% abandon call rate with an average wait time above 90 minutes. An abandon call rate is the number of people that call, and eventually hang up. On top of that, with a skeleton staff they could only afford to go after the easy to detect tax cheats using computer automation, like the guy with 5 different jobs in a year that forgot to report one of his 1099’s. Yet, a lot of people eat up the message “defund the IRS”! A underfunded IRS can only squeeze the little guy, and leaves billions on the table. The only people that are really happy are the top 10% with little or no income reported on a 1099.

  6. The “administrative state” has been starved and the starving cannot provide good services. You name it: out of date systems, inability to recruit for the best and brightest, poor/non-existent oversight, increasing politicization (see the Post Office), etc. Who did the starving? Mostly the GOP. Bundle that with the result – poor service – and “the people” have been neatly bamboozled into thinking that government is inept and not worthy of trust.

  7. As a former member of what I interpret as the “deep state”, I’m glad that there is an army of bureaucrats, doing the work of government, regardless of who is in charge. Imagine the chaos of changing out the people and the processes every four to eight years. I’m saddened by the loss of institutional memory that was suffered under TFG. I know full well how government workers are seen in America, and I can tell you that I found more truly dedicated people in government than I did at any corporation I ever worked for. I also saw miracles performed in medicine and rehabilitation. All was on the taxpayer’s dime and all benefitting everyone. I remember speaking with someone in DC, shortly after I arrived. She wasn’t a government employee. She said, ” People move to New York to make money. They move to DC to make a difference. “

  8. What they “really mean,” is moving ev er closer to a Leisas-faire system, in which the wolves run the hen house, and the gov’t is there to suggest just which sort of marinade for the hens.

  9. I know I’ve mentioned this before. Epidemiologists established the risk factor of second hand smoke causing cancer or heart disease to be about 1.3. (And even that number was only arrived at by cherry-picking the studies.) Epidemiologists don’t consider there to be causation established if the risk factor is below 1.95. For the record, the risk factor of first hand smoke causing cancer and heart disease is like 9.0 or above. The ban on smoking in bars and restaurants was more about the annoyance factor…the supposed health concerns were just an excuse that made the bans acceptable for a wider audience.

  10. The administrative state, definitely correlates to nanny services.

    The Germans before World war II, decided that nanny services were to draining on their resources. Nanny services took up too much time and too much treasure. So what did they do? They started slaughtering the elderly, and the infirmed, the autistic, the mentally and psychologically damaged.

    An administrative state has to administer with compassion and empathy. Also with an eye towards sustainability. There will always be those inclined to tear down, to destroy, for the sake of self enrichment, power or control.

    So, who or what do we use as a buffer between those who want to live a decent life guaranteed by our free moral agency and human Rights, and those who authoritatively try to dictate and control those human rights and free moral agency for others.

    As humans, we are implored to do no harm, but as we know, there are plenty that thrive on dictating harm.

    One thing I will say, is that the Mosaic law, and the law of Christ, was always a a backstop of conscience, keeping many from going to far. Of course men I.E. humanity, made it easier for everyone to disregard that backstop of conscience, the last barrier between humanity and inhumanity.

    Men have mucked up free moral agency and religious boundaries, kind of like throwing out the baby with the bath water. As we know the baby was always the last to get a bath, the water was dirty, and sometimes, the little one would be hard to see in the bath water. And that’s exactly what has been done to the Mosaic law and the law of Christ.

    Humility is such an important element in having a functioning free moral agency and conscience.
    The trouble with that is, everyone wants to be their own God. And humanity has manipulated religion and history to acquire their personal godship. And all that does is create perpetual confrontation and unsustainable conflict.

    An administrative state has to administrate with righteousness, reasonableness, equality, logic, and fairness. If not, that administrative state becomes an authoritarian government. And that can happen in a heartbeat.

    This planet is so small, and as Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided cannot stand. We share this house we live in with all sorts, and if there can’t be a common bond, this house will not be livable. All it takes is one nut to push the button. And, how many nuts are out there who have a button to push? All of humanity hangs on self-perceived narcissistic gods? That man-made godship is absolutely meritless and history shows it.

    Christ stated; “Every kingdom divided against itself comes to ruin, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 1: 25)

    Solomon stated; “I myself returned that I might see all the acts of oppression that are being done under the sun, and, look! the tears of those being oppressed, but they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, so that they had no comforter. And I congratulated the dead who had already died rather than the living who were still alive. So better than both of them is the one who has not yet come to be, who has not seen the calamitous work that is being done under the sun.”​ (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.)

  11. Paul – sorry – the average IQ score (for what it’s worth) is 100. That doesn’t mean that everyone has an IQ of 100. The average added risk was determined to be 1.3. but again, individual differences make it very dangerous for some, and not so bad for others. The problem being that not everyone knows their individual risk.

    Besides, why does someone have the right to blow smoke in my face. I thought the individual freedom to swing a fist ends at my face. Shouldn’t be able to hit me; shouldn’t be able to blow smoke in my face.

    Back to the main point – I think that the main reason to attack regulations has long been to allow the rich and powerful to get away with whatever they want and for them to define the “externalities” of their businesses (the air, water, climate, etc. all belongs to them).

  12. Did you ever ride in a car owned by a smoker? It stinks, and it has tar from the smoke embedded on the upholstery or I should say in the upholstery, and, a thick coating of ick on the windows.

    I was a facility engineer when they stopped the smoking in the buildings, we had to replace all of the ceiling tiles, and completely tear down the air handlers and clean the air ducts. We had to remove any trace of the smoking by-product, or to the best of our ability. That also included office furniture and window dressings.

    They tried to bring in steam cleaners to save some of the carpeting or the cubicle spaces, but you couldn’t get that stench out of anything.

    So, if an office environment where people are sitting for 8 to 12 hours a day has this residue on everything, imagine what it does to someone’s lungs!

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