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First Principles

Bureaucratic Rule: By What Right?

The oft-repeated statement that America suffers from meritocracy is the opposite of the truth. Pretense of excellence, not excellence itself, is the ground on which the U.S. ruling class bases its claim to legitimacy.


- October 26th, 2019
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Americans are just beginning to realize that opposition to Donald Trump is the least explanation for what bureaucrats, corporate officials and media magnates have been doing to negate the outcome of the 2016 election. Denying that government by the people is the only legitimate form of rule, they are asserting that legitimate rule flows from right-minded persons in the country’s institutions, elections notwithstanding. The following shows that this assertion flows merely from our ruling class’s will to power.

The New York Times long has tried to school us in the rightfulness of the bureaucracy’s attempt to rule America contrary to the results of elections. Last year, the editorial board published an anonymous piece, in an unprecedented move, purporting to be written by a “high official” arguing that mandarins like himself serve the country by subverting the Trump administration. The most recent titles tell all. Thomas Friedman wrote: “It’s not Trump vs. the Democrats. It’s Trump vs. the country’s true defenders,” these being the intelligence officers who have teamed up with the Democrats and the media anonymously to smear Trump. Most recently, Michelle Cottle, a member of the editorial board, published “They Are Not the Resistance. They Are Not a Cabal. They Are Public Servants: Let us now praise these not-silent heroes.” She might have added the adjective “anonymous.” Another Times story is headlined, “‘We Didn’t Get Ph.Ds Just to Sit Around’: Civil Servants’ Good Will Erodes.”

The premise of the Times’ campaign is that the bureaucrats’ knowledge and positions give them the right, and the duty, to rule in defiance of elected officials—not just in cases, like Trump’s which they may consider extraordinary, but in general. In practice, this argument means that bureaucrats should obey elected officials only when these measure up to the bureaucrats’ Progressive standards. That, in turn, means that the bureaucrats, whom we pay but may not fire, are the rightful deciders and any notion of a sovereign people ruling themselves through representatives whom they elect and fire is a quaint and outmoded one to be discarded by those of superior understanding, like themselves.

Their superior right supposedly comes from superior knowledge and morality. In short, they should rule us because they are better than we. So much better are they that it is illegitimate for us to look too closely at how they reach their conclusions. For example, if what they do involves “national security,” our insistence in knowing the details is likely to endanger it.

Of course this negates American life’s fundamental premise that government must be answerable to the general population. Superficially, however, it does so on behalf of aristocracy, “rule of the best.” Better people make better decisions. Who could be against that? But modern America’s pretend-aristocrats are merely a class of persons who describe themselves as “the best” without any warrant for doing so.

To better understand how counterfeit is the U.S. ruling class’s claim of aristocracy, let us glance at how class-based bureaucratic rule came to be what it is in the West, and specifically in America.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, as Europe’s kings took power away from ancient nobles, cities, corporations, and the Church, they told the people that royal administrators and judges were really better rulers than those whom they replaced. Sometimes, the kings were correct. Notably in France, the royal bureaucrats were harbingers of order and physical progress. Nevertheless, bureaucratic rule chafed.

The European revolutionaries who overthrew the kings established governmental accountability only formally, only at the very top of society. More than the kings, they used bureaucracy as a means of control and touted it as the harbinger of order and scientific progress. Led by Napoleon, nineteenth century European governments opened bureaucratic careers to talent. From thence through three quarters of the 20th century, humble Europeans could rise to society’s heights through competitive examinations strictly and fairly administered. The meritocratic nobility thus produced reconciled bureaucratic despotism with egalitarian sentiments. Whether these exams, in fact, selected the truly “best” is open to question. Surely, however, those who enjoyed the powers and rewards of high places had earned them by proving, fair and square, they were the best at something. Though few could succeed, all could try, from the first grade to the “Grandes Écoles.

The enormous progress in so many fields during the age of aristo-bureaucratic rule cemented popular allegiance to European governments. Over the past 40 years or so, however, that model of rule has largely disappeared from Europe, along with the era of progress and popular contentment. More on that below.

Something somewhat similar has happened in America, though from a very different historical base.

The revolution of 1776-1789 cut off such tentacles of British bureaucratic government as had crossed the Atlantic. On this side, there was little distinction between rulers and ruled. Americans governed themselves mostly locally, and largely according to the Aristotelian formula: “ruling and being ruled in turn.” The number of un-elected officials was small. Since officials were obviously dependent on those who appointed them, they were almost as responsible to the electorate as the elected.

Americans were less interested in the bureaucrats’ quality than in the quality of those they elected—the presidents and governors—who appointed them. The first six presidents had given jobs to people they liked, to be sure. But they really tried to get high-quality people. Andrew Jackson made clear, however, that loyalty to him was perhaps an office seeker’s primary qualification. During and after the Civil War, as the ranks of officials grew, the conflict between political loyalty and professional qualification intensified. At this time also, American Progressives were becoming admirers of Europe’s aristocratic, progressive bureaucracies, especially as praised by G. F. W. Hegel.

Hence U.S. Progressives wanted to model the Civil Service Act of 1883 along European lines: employees would be chosen by competitive exams in the fields in which they desired to serve, and could not be dismissed for political reasons. The law, however, never produced an American bureaucratic nobility primarily because most of those who crafted it and administered it were far more interested in ending the “spoils system” by insulating hiring from the results of elections. Only entrance into the Foreign Service and the admission to the military academies ended up governed by strictly competitive exams. (By the turn of the 21st century, even these exams had been denatured.) The civil service exam quickly became pro forma. Nor, unlike in Europe, was advancement in rank ever conditioned on exams. In short, American bureaucracies quickly became filled and governed not through merit but by co-option.

As bureaucrats hired people like themselves, they filled America’s administrative state not with a diverse lot of excellent people, but rather with monochromatic mediocrities; not with meritocratic aristocrats, but with people who pretend to be such.

The oft-repeated statement that America suffers from meritocracy is the opposite of the truth.

Pretense of excellence, not excellence itself, is the ground on which the U.S. ruling class bases its claim to legitimacy. How transparent that pretense is may be seen by noting how unanimously and vigorously the ruling class objects to exams, how allergic it is to any objective measure of worth.

The ostensible basis on which this class rejects objective criteria of right, truth, excellence, or even of worth and competence, namely pretending to remedy the application’s “disparate impact” is transparent. When contestants are aware of whatever the criterion might be, disparate levels of ability and effort inevitably produce disparate results that cut across social categories, regardless of those categories. Claims that there is something about such disparities that those in possession of power should remedy according to their lights end up being nothing more than claims to the superior worth of co-option—that is, of the powerful’s personal preferences—over any and all criteria. These claims are about securing power.

In short, from families in America’s prestige suburbs who hate the SAT, to the educational establishment’s administrators who enforce uniformity in the name of diversity, to private and public executive suites where promotion is by brown-nosing, the ruling class treats competition in general and exams in particular as threats to their status. Imagine how different America would be were admissions to schools and all manner of jobs to be won by honest, competitive exams.

That is why objective criteria for entry into advanced schooling or government functions have given way to the ruling class’s non-transparent exercises of co-option. Inevitably, as those in power surround themselves with persons at least a little less competent than themselves and enjoying substantially less legitimacy than themselves, the negative selection of elites produces incompetent oligarchies. It ends by destroying the regime.

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