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2022-07-02

The Brownstone Institute (did they get that name from a government office for imaginative titles?) treats us to a useful dissertation on the problem of "the administrative state".

UK viewers know how this works - we only have to revisit the 'Ministry of Administrative Affairs' so helpfully documented in the TV SitComs "Yes Minister" / "Yes Prime Minister" to know exactly what they are talking about.

Trump apparently also knew and issued an executive order to bring those federal employees "who are beyond legislative reach but they still make policy and determine the structure of the regime under which we live" (in UK parlance, the civil service, QUANGOs, regulators, maybe even private contractors ... ) under his ultimate control.

After all, it would be his administration that would carry the can for their performance.

Whilst this Brownstone Institute article concerns itself with the American version of this problem, I'm sure that we in the UK also need to think seriously about it, and not merely confine ourselves to laughing at how bad it was in Mrs Thatcher's day.

It's a pretty safe bet that it's even worse now.

Still, for my money the author skates around the fundamental problem:- that the centralisation of bureaucracy leaves it so far removed from local issues that it quickly becomes a theoretical exercise, removed from reality and impervious to accountability to those it is supposed to serve.

And central bureaucracies at some point always try to gain more power, one way or another, by centralising responsibilities that should remain local. 

It's their career progression after all.

The obvious answer is devolution of power to the lowest practicable level, stripping central government of its carefully accumulated responsibilities and tax-gathering powers and moving them down the tree to the local level.

We also need a public discussion to determine which responsibilities we want to leave with national government and which we want to return to local government.

Then we need to ensure that centralisation remains in check.

Are there better ways to supply a desired public good than through government taxation - why not take some stuff out of its reach altogether and provide it (for example) from voluntary public subscription? If the public doesn't want it and won't pay for it, do we need it?

Yes, that would lead to different outcomes in different areas and we would need a genuine free press to undertake its traditional function of investigative reporting, identifying the differences and informing the public. It would not be one-size-fits-all - and that is after all the quid pro quo for local control and accountability. Local newshounds should love it - goodbye flower shows, hello local news and real politics with a purpose!

Such a programme would concentrate the minds of the public and involve them in ways that are presently heavily discouraged, both by practical difficulty, and by years of subliminally messaging the fallacy that big problems can only be resolved by giving the government more powers.

We won't get the right balance right off the bat, but there's plenty of scope and we should start to think about it with intent.

The alternative is to stick with a government of the bureaucrats by the bureaucrats and for the bureaucrats, and say goodbye to any hope of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I think we have proved over many years that these options are fundamentally incompatible.