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.