The phrase “the Fourth Estate” was popularized by Thomas Carlyle in his book Heroes and Hero Worship (which deserves to be read more than it is now) and he attributed it to Edmund Burke. The three “estates” were the nobility, the clergy, and the common people. The fourth estate was one distinct from those three. In the United States is generally means the press. Here’s the passage, referring to the French Revolution, in which the phrase was used in that sense:
A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up; increases and multiplies, irrepressible, incalculable.
I want to commend to your attention an op-ed by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post in which Mr. Turley takes note with some alarm at the incredible and unanswerable power of a different fourth estate—the federal bureaucracy:
The growing dominance of the federal government over the states has obscured more fundamental changes within the federal government itself: It is not just bigger, it is dangerously off kilter. Our carefully constructed system of checks and balances is being negated by the rise of a fourth branch, an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.
For much of our nation’s history, the federal government was quite small. In 1790, it had just 1,000 nonmilitary workers. In 1962, there were 2,515,000 federal employees. Today, we have 2,840,000 federal workers in 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies.
This exponential growth has led to increasing power and independence for agencies. The shift of authority has been staggering. The fourth branch now has a larger practical impact on the lives of citizens than all the other branches combined.
The op-ed trails off somewhat at its conclusion which to my mind consists of a series of non sequiturs. Don’t let that diminish his essential point: it’s an important one.
The events of the last few weeks, particularly those involving the ever-widening and tremendously depressing affair of the IRS’s institutional problems, remind me enormously of The Trial or, perhaps, the Tsarist bureaucracy as portrayed by Gogol: all-powerful, eternal, incomprehensible, and drab. What is to be done?
I can think of any number of solutions but I can’t honestly see a workable process for getting from where we are to any of them. My preference, as I have mentioned any number of times before, would be a steep reduction in federal power in favor of state and local power in the hopes of bringing the unquestionably necessary bureaucracy down to something more closely resembling human scale. One cannot be a resident of the city of Chicago and believe that state and local governments are free of corruption or inanity but at least they’re something you can get your mind around.
Others want more centralization. I honesty don’t see how that will come out well.
I could not disagree more. I would far rather have power concentrated in the federal rather than the state bureaucracies. The very idea of states is an absurdity. And with everything from slavery to Jim Crow to abortion to the teaching of evolution we’ve seen the intractable imbecility of the states. Granted the feds are no solons, but states, far from being incubators of good new ideas are generally defenders of the old, the dumb, the cruel and the malicious.
Look at your (and formerly my) state of Illinois. Can Illinois even get to two in a row in the number of non-criminal governors? And Illinois is an actual state, unlike the pretend states of the great plains.
The solution to bureaucratic misconduct is to investigate and where possible prosecute bad behavior. Doesn’t change if it’s national as opposed to state.
And reducing the size and scope of the federal power just means that national and international corporations become even more impossible to control. How is the state of North Dakota supposed to deal with the big banks or the auto makers or pharmaceutical companies?
The problem, as Turley outlines, is that with a bureaucracy with increased discretion and reduced accountability an investigation of the sort you describe is like pushing on a rope. Sure, you’ll solve one particular issue in one particular agency that occurred in one particular period. You’ve done it at tremendous cost in money and time.
There are 10,000 other agencies with 10,000 other issues. You’re suggesting a patch. More is needed than a patch.
“I would far rather have power concentrated in the federal rather than the state bureaucracies.”
Be careful what you wish for.
“The very idea of states is an absurdity. ”
Let’s leave aside the obvious point that states are here to stay and pose a question – how much do you value self-determination?
Additionally, one thing I’ve noticed is that those who argue for centralized federal authority seem to assume that it would be their preferred policies that would be implemented by the feds. Not a safe assumption.
I also don’t understand the paternalistic streak in this line of reasoning which suggests that there is a right answer for policy or governance issues, which the heathens who disagree in the hinterlands will realize once they are forced into compliance. Personally, I’m a live-and-let live kind of guy.
Also, I do think there is a significant danger of concentrated power in that controlling that power becomes a prize and the more power, the bigger the stakes. If you look through history, Michael, I think you’ll see that centralization rarely works well for diverse populations. Centralization, however, does work a lot better for homogenous populations. The US isn’t a homogenous population and greater centralization will not bring efficiencies, or greater peace and harmony. Greater federal power will not reign in the power of corporations, it is likely to do quite the opposite.
But you’re just relocating the problem from a single office in Washington to 50 equivalents around the country.
I don’t think there’s an easy fix that obviates the need for constant monitoring and constant effort to ensure that the government works well. We are a nation of 300+ millon people, the world’s sole military superpower, a technological, diplomatic, cultural and economic force without equal, and this is the 21st century.
Devolving more regulation to states just makes it harder for interstate business, and it makes it harder for individual citizens to move from state to state. It magnifies the weird injustices inherent in an American citizen in State A being able to perform act X that would get him arrested in State B. It turns power over to people who are even dumber than their federal counterparts.
I’m sure I told you this, but for a while I was doing political media in concert with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Without naming names, some of the people we ended up doing commercials for weren’t just dumb, they were mentally unbalanced, clueless, disconnected from reality, absent any relevant experience. They were people you wouldn’t hire to clean your pool. Compared to those folks even an ass-hat like Lindsay Graham is a towering beacon of wonderfulness.
We need a national government. We don’t need state governments, or for that matter, states.
I’m not assuming anything. I’m saying that I trust the diverse 300 million American citizens more than I trust the citizens of Alabama. And there’s a whole lot of historical evidence suggesting I’m right.
Can you expand on your belief that diverse populations don’t work well under central government? The best-run governments around are in countries that are either newly diverse or have been diverse for a long time. Bear in mind that the definition of “diverse” can mean a lot of things. We tend to think of France as not being diverse, but of course the “French” have long consisted of various Franks, Normans, Celts, Catalans among many others, and now include various western and northern Africans as well as Turks, etc… Is France less well-run now than it was in earlier, less diverse times? I think quite the contrary.
It’s long been my belief that the pissing and moaning about the national gubmint just deflects folks away from considering the real agents of tyranny in their day to day lives. State and local governments have, and exercise with a ferocious regularity, a power over the quotidian that the federal government never, ever, ever had, has, or will have. And I think that a lot of the criticism of the federal government is really just a secular attempt at metaphysics – Deep Thoughts About Big Things, and all that. What else could it be when on the list of things governmental that can make your ordinary, everyday life (you know, the one you really live) miserable, things federal are way down at the bottom of that list for the vast majority of us.
You don’t live in Alabama, correct? I would suggest that your opinion on whether 300 million Americans (which, obviously, includes the people of Alabama) are more trustworthy than the citizen of Alabama is an irrelevant question. The relevant question for you, is – Do you trust 300 million Americans (including Alabamians) more than you trust the citizens of California?
As for diversity, France is not nearly as diverse as the US. The Franks, Normans, Celts, Catalans were part of France long before the US was even settled by Europeans. Except for the Catalans, any distinction between those peoples is gone. Plus France is small and size matters when it comes to centralization. A better example to compare the US to is the whole EU. Would the whole EU be run better if all political authority rested in Brussels? Europeans don’t seem to think so….
As for my belief that diverse populations don’t work well under central government, that is the historical norm. Historically, diversity under central government was very rarely achieved except through the use of force. Again, most people (maybe you are an exception), do not cede sovereignty for administrative efficiency or faith in the judgments of others.
If you eliminate state governments and transfer all that authority to the federal government, does the “never, ever, ever” still apply?
Just to quibble a bit, I dont think exponential means what he thinks it means. He had over 3 million federal employees between 1987-1992. The number of state and local employees is what has grown. If we look at it on a dollar basis, non-defense discretionary spending has stayed pretty steady, and is projected to fall. What is growing is spending on health care.
If his concern is the growth of govt, why is he advocating for more power to the states? That is where we have had real growth. The states also control much of our health care spending. Mandates for private insurance are at the state level. Medicaid spending is controlled at the state level. I understand the theory and why you might want more local control, but in practice the states dont seem to work so well.
Unless, you really want every state to be like Mississippi/Louisiana as a worst case scenario or Texas as a best. How well do we compete internationally if we lost the best universities in the world as a result of the low investment in public education like in the aforementioned states?
Those will be the people administering the centralized programs you’re advocating, without knowledge of local conditions and with even less accountability and legitimacy than the state and local governments you detest.
There’s nothing magical about the federal government. If local and state governments are inevitably corrupt and incompetent, so is the federal government. Also farther away and without local support.
People love it when they get money from the federal government. Not so much when the federal government is telling them what to do.
I don’t think that’s his concern. I think he’s worried about unchecked unaccountable power. I don’t read him as advocating more power for the states. I’m not sure he’s advocating anything at all which, perhaps, explains why his op-ed just sort of trails off at the end.
FWIW my impression is that Turley is a left-libertarian.
You offered no examples of central governments performing particularly poorly with diverse populations. And you gloss over diversity without defining it. Believe me, back in the day Normans and Franks did not think they were all the same folks.
I would guess what you’re focusing on is the more obvious diversity: race. But Hutus and Tutsis are the same color. So are both sides in Northern Ireland. It’s much easier to imagine that things are homogenous when you’re far away. For example most Americans assume that Swedes, Norwegians and Finns are all the same people. But Swedes, Norwegians and Finns don’t see it that way.
The US is not in any way analogous to the EU. We have been one nation since at least the end of the Civil War. And size and distance are so much less relevant than they used to be.
Finally, do you not agree that France today is both more diverse than it was, say, a century ago, but also far, far better governed?
If you eliminate state governments and transfer all that authority to the federal government, does the “never, ever, ever” still apply?
Of course not. But you just stated a tautology.
Look at any “empire” through history. They very rarely last regardless of administrative capabilities. They are kept together and centrally administered by force. Again, this goes back to the idea of self determination. Scotland wants autonomy from the UK, Catalan wants autonomy from Spain. Czecks and Slovaks want separate countries. Quebec wants autonomy from Canada. A federal system allows for that kind of autonomy. It may or may not be administratively efficient, but that doesn’t matter.
So when you say that you trust 300 million Americans more than the people of Alabama, you are saying that self determination isn’t important. You are rejecting federalism. You are saying that the people of Alabama (or Scotland, or Catalan, or Quebec, or any other place where federalism exists in practice) should not be trusted with local concerns and that the central government should dictate policy to them. Maybe you don’t realize it, but that is the reality if you want to get rid of states as a political community. Federalism is the system that works when it comes to uniting different political communities.
France is not diverse in this context. Yes, it has some minorities living in it’s cities, but it lacks the kind of cultural and geographic differentiation that makes Quebec different from the rest of Canada and Alabama different from California.
Actually, diverse empires have lasted very long times, indeed. Rome (west) lasted at least 500 years and Rome (east) well over a thousand years. The British empire, depending on how much one quibbles with this or that, certainly lasted 200 years by any count. The Ottoman empire endured quite a while, not always in great shape, but alive. These were diverse empires.
But of course empires have little to do with Republics in terms of longevity. We have a Republic. Despite our frequent complaints, in historical terms it has been remarkably well-governed, with only a single civil war and not even so much as a coup. And has gone from being agricultural and trading colonies on the eastern seaboard to being the world’s sole superpower. And we were extraordinarily diverse right from the start. And as we’ve become more diverse our power has grown, not diminished.
Why is self-determination necessarily local? No one has self-determination unless they have a federal system? Come on, that’s nonsense. You act as though states are mandated by God. They’re lines on a map. We could draw better lines, just the two of us with a map and a highlighter.
California is a global powerhouse while Wyoming couldn’t manage to make a decent city, all together. In terms of countries, California could be India or Russia and damned nearly the United Kingdom, while Vermont isn’t even Latvia, it’s Cameroon. But this self-evidently absurd situation is somehow necessary to “self-determination?”
Whether I dilute my vote in the pool of 38 million Californians or 300 million Americans, do you really think that matters much to me? What matters more to me is that my Senatorial vote is reduced to insignificance by a ridiculous and out-dated system that gives equal weight to Texas and Delaware, New York and Nebraska, California and Arkansas. Federalism sucks for the big states, the real states, the ones that carry the rest of the country around on their backs. Half the wealth of this country is generated by eight states who, together, hold 16% of the senate. Half the population together has something like 20% of the Senate. Yeah, that’s some great democracy there. Yay federalism that chains Los Angeles and San Francisco and San Diego to the policies preferred by a handful of goobers in Arkansas.
Whatever your preference, Michael, I think we’re much more likely to see devolution of power back to the states than we are to see more power concentrated in the federal government. The main reason is that Californians won’t give up their initiatives (they call them “referendums” but technically they’re initiatives) or Prop. 13, Missourians won’t give up their ability to veto new taxes, and Louisianans won’t give up the Code Napoleon, etc. Every state has unique conditions and history and they won’t abandon them.
The additional reason is that doing everything at the federal level is just too costly and ponderous. Federalizing everything would be significantly more costly than what we’re doing now because of the way that bureaucracies work. More expensive than the present federal government + state governments + local governments. Bureaucracies don’t scale linearly (i.e. doing twice as much costs more than twice as much).
The Romans, British and Turks maintained their empires by force. Is that what you want for the United States? If Quebec and Catalan can have their own governance and autonomy why can’t Alabama and California?
You note that our republic is remarkably well governed and lasting but you want to destroy one of the foundations of its success, which is federalism?
Sure, Gertrude Bell, Mortimer Durand, and others did a wonderful job of that. How are are all those working out in Africa and Asia?
All the more reason to support state sovereignty – California can continue to chart its own path which is, not coincidentally, exactly what it’s done since it became a state. California’s been blessed by geography, but also was on the leading edge in several policy areas which eventually became SOP for most of the country. Would that have happened if California didn’t have the independence to pursue those efforts?
This is the point I’ve tried to make which I think you’ve been missing. Eliminating the states is a two-way street. Yeah, you may be able to shove modernity down Alabama’s throat (though it’s still not clear why you give a rat’s ass about Alabama) but the cost is that California loses it independence. Take away that independence and California becomes a slave to the central government. Do you think that would be good for your state?
Consider what’s going on with Gay marriage as just one example. There’d be no gay marriage without federalism right now – DOMA would be the law of the land, enforced by the philosopher Kings in the federal bureaucracy….
Ok, let’s imagine, for a minute, a USA without the Senate and states. Who controls the Congress right now? Half the wealth may be generated by eight states, but states don’t count for shit now, right? So Boehner’s your man, bitch – bend over! LA and most of southern California wouldn’t exist because the water projects that allow them to exist were creations of the state legislature….
All your base are belong to us….
Seriously, consider the implications.
BTW, the last comment of mine was influenced just a bit by some cheap boxed chardonnay. I blame my wife for that.