Thursday, February 17, 2011

Between Freedom and Administration

When a corporation declares bankruptcy, it is common to say that it is operating "under administration." It is a polite way of saying that the corporation is no longer free to direct its own affairs. It operates only at the pleasure of its creditors acting through the courts. Administration means subjection.

In a similar way, Jean-Francois Revel, writing The Totalitarian Temptation in the bleak years before Ronald Reagan when it seemed that democratic capitalism was dying and that communism would take over the world, or at least participate as full partner in the future, wrote of the essential fragility of the totalitarian state. It must act with force and severity because it does not serve the hopes of its citizens, he wrote. Totalitarian states are fragile and brittle; their administrative structure makes them rigid and slow to adapt to changing conditions and needs.

The democratic state, on the contrary, ever since its birth in the three branch theory of Montesquieu in the 18th century, is a system that disperses and devolves power into separate and flexible institutions. From the three-branch state of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, Revel suggests six new powers that have arisen since the 18th century: business power, union power, media power, police power, military power, and diplomatic power.

Now I like to work from Michael Novak's three-sector model: political, economic, and moral/cultural, so it immediately appears to me that his nine-power model is clearly deficient in the moral/cultural realm. He leaves out, as a Frenchman well may, churches, fraternal associations, charitable groups, cultural associations, organizations that are not formed either for economic enterprise nor for political purposes.

But his differentiation of the executive power is interesting and useful. The chief executive is commander-in-chief, but under democratic capitalism there is a clear separation between the civilian leadership of the armed forces and the uniformed armed services themselves. This separation is intended as a separation of powers to prevent military dictatorship; it keeps the army out of politics and hopefully keeps the armed services from too much meddling by the politicians. The police power is also a deliberate separation from the unified executive. The idea is to limit the power of the executive to use the police power for political purposes, to criminalize and weaken the opposition. Notice that the separation of military and police power from the executive is a big deal to our liberal friends, and a credit to them.

Yes, but what about separating the administrative power from the executive, so that the operation of government departments is kept at a distance from elected politicians and their desire for the power to reward their friends and punish their enemies with government largesse.

This, perhaps, is the next stage in political evolution. It is easy to see why our present ruling class, the educated elite, has little interest in curbing the executive's influence over administration. Administrative centralism is the very life blood of the modern state. Our modern educated youths organize their lives to succeed in the system of administrative centralism, with its credentialism, its ticket punching, and its social power. A vast media empire is devoted to the boosting of the cultural and political power of the high fliers that go to selective colleges, establish reputations as political or foundation staffers or young academics, and then become honored experts, mandarins in the administrative welfare state, and the authors of the complex administrative initiatives that are offered in season to mitigate the administrative failures of a previous round of administrative innovation--the consequences of the law of unintended consequences.

The effect of the system of administrative centralism is similar to its extreme version, the totalitarian state. It solves every political problem with compulsion, with a new schedule of administrative regulations, and new subsidies and penalties. Each new ratchet of compulsion rigidifies and fragilizes. It sets society up for a fall, for the whole point of practical politics is to stop people going off and doing things without permission.

But the lesson of the modern era is that humans are social animals that can achieve amazing things when you give them the dignity and the freedom to innovate and serve their fellow humans without the club of administrative centralism. The whole apparatus of prices and ownership and credit and profit is a spontaneous human social organism that strongly encourages people to serve the needs of their fellow humans. The differentiated universe of social cooperation is a vibrant organism of life; the centralized administrative pyramid of the unified state is a mechanism of lifeless automation and compulsion.

The great challenge of the next generation is a moral/cultural one. It is to proselytize a new faith in freedom and dignity, and to marginalize the false faith in unity and compulsion. For the lesson of the 20th century is that centralization and compulsion through political power is a temptation of Satan himself. That was what Satan famously offered Jesus Christ: power over all the world.

But Christ said No; get thee behind me, old chum. And you can see why, not just from a moral point of view, but a practical point of view. Everything that political power touches turns to stone. Olease, for God's sake, keep politics and compulsion out of it; we humans are social animals, not regimented ants.

Just look at the commanding heights of the poltical sector. Government pensions are a mess, and about to bankrupt the states. Government health care is a mess as people massively overuse health care that is "free at the point of delivery." Government education has been on a decline for a century, as nobody values education that is free, and the failures lead to more and more regimentation and compulsion and the universal incarceration of children in government educational facilities. Government welfare is a joke, a program that could not have been better formulated if its intention had been to destroy the culture and the families and the work skills of the poor.

So what do we do? What is the first step back to freedom and dignity and away from administration and compulsion? Stay tuned; the best is yet to come.

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