State Autonomy and Electoral Triviality

Almost everybody thinks elections are events of immense importance. I think this is evidence that almost nobody understands how we are in fact governed (or ruled). The distinction between the government and the state is simple enough, but it seems that nobody really really gets it.

The point is that if Kerry wins, just suppose, then we'll get a new slate of political appointees in the agencies of the executive branch. But the overall turnover will be negligible. Now, political appointees matter, but not THAT much. The lifers rule.

When Congress passes a law, it's out of their hands. It's up to the bureacracy to interpret it, which they can do faithfully or perversely, and to enforce it, which they may choose not to do at all.

I once went on a date with an EPA lawyer. (Yay!) I said to her, more or less, this is my guess about what you do. . . A new environmental law is passed. The EPA people decide whether they like it or not. If they like it, they enforce it. If they don't like it, they think, “What would we like the law to mean?” They then try to find a way of interpreting the language to reflect their, rather than congress's preferences. The lawyers then think about who will sue them if they interpret the law this way, and whether they would win the suit. If they can't win, they reinterpret it in a way that maybe doesn't reflect their preferences as much, but which is more likely to stand up in court. Once they've got a winner, they implement, and prepare for the likey suit.

She said, “That's almost exactly what I do.”

I wanted to know whether she, a good liberal, considered this anti-democratic. She didn't. Not at all. Democracy is beautiful! It's just that the representatives of the people tend not to know their elbows from their assholes, are subject to all sorts of distorting electoral pressures, and so pass laws contrary to what they would pass if they knew more and were directly motivated by a desire to promote the commonweal. So democracy is great, except when it's not, due to ignorance and bad motivation, which is almost always, in which case the bureaucracy, who really do know what they're doing, has to fix things.

Now, I found this to be an astonishing . . . tension. (No, we never went out again.) In any case, I'm quite glad things work this way. You may never hear another libertarian say this, so listen up: I think the United States of America has an absolutely wonderful bureaucracy! That is, wonderful relative to most actually existing bureacracies in the world, which should be the relevant comparison class, not the Meinongian bureacracies of our dreams.

Anyway, we elect the government, not the state. Governments comes and go. The state persists. We should count ourselves lucky to have a decent state that is pretty much competent, and does a fairly good job of undermining democracy in a generally salutary fashion.

That said, when a President tells the Army to go invade a country, they go. A president that didn't do this might be nice.

  • Frankly, I don’t think you or McCloskey know what you’re talking about when it comes to “the pot-of-pleasure definition favored by modern utilitarians.”

    She’s depicting “modern utilitarians” as all being like Jeremy Bentham. But John Stuart Mill decimated Bentham’s rigid view of utility back in the 19th century, in favor of a multi-dimensional view along the lines that McCloskey presumably favors. Hence Mill’s famous quip that some utilitarians believe it’s better to be a pig satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied. It’s widely accepted among modern ethicists that Mill got this right, or at least more right than Bentham.

    I welcome the discussion from you and McCloskey on this point, and I think it’s important enough that it’s well-worth pointing out again and again — but please realize that other people have been thinking the same thing for a long time.

  • CraigMcGillivary

    With the death of Wlater Cronkite a lot of people will talk about how much they hate our fragmented media world. But was he always on every night more interesting to watch than that lady who could stamp crazy fast? And then all the people talking about how everbody trusted him its like America used to be a Stalinist dictatorship and people wish we could go back.