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Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a decline in the level of trust in government, and a rise in distrust, to levels unprecedented in American history. But to think this is an entirely new phenomenon is a mistake: trust in government has steadily declined since the Great Society and the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson.
This graph from Pew with data running through the fall of 2013 shows how people answer the question: “How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington?” The answer is pretty clear: not much at all.
There are many reasons that this phenomenon has accelerated despite the promises of one presidential candidate after another to restore our faith in government. But there is one reason in particular which runs through the political stories of the past year – the IRS scandals, the unanticipated failure of Obamacare’s implementation, the broad expansion of the administrative discretion and “the-secretary-shall” lawmaking, executive actions on amnesty and DACA, deleted emails right and left, and, most recently, the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for vetoing funding for a unit of legal bureaucrats after it became obvious they were headed by a drunk driver who refused to resign. On the whole, it presents a picture of how far the Administrative State is willing to blatantly ignore any checks on their ability to enact their whims.
Government has always been frustrated by any checks on their power. The Founders believed that you can check that power with the mob, either democratic or anarchic, for only so long before government would turn to despotism. So their solution was to deliberately balance the forces of power against each other, to tie the governors’ hands via limited, enumerated powers of national government. The Constitution made the action of government – in nearly all areas outside of waging war – deliberately difficult, and that was on purpose. It was supposed to be hard to pass new laws, not because the Founders were opposed to new laws, but because they wanted to make it impossible for those laws to oppress the people.
What the Founders did not anticipate was the degree to which those invested by the Constitution with the power to make law would find it politically advantageous over the course of a century to steadily cede their power to unelected governmental bodies of vast size and with an ever-enlarged mission. Representative government, it turns out, is very difficult. Better and wiser to shift the responsibility for such decisions to someone else – to tell the frustrated citizen that it is beyond your control to address their concern, and isn’t there an agency for that? This new unchecked branch of government has seized the power it wants along the way: the power to reward friends and grant waivers and special privileges to people and firms who they like or who play by their rules, to abuse their power in the course of punishing those who they don’t, the power to live large and cover up mistakes without that difficult legislative process.
That’s why they are so willing to go to such great lengths to hold on to their jobs. When bad things happen in the real world, heads roll. But in the world of the Administrative State, resignation is the worst possible thing you can demand of someone. So political appointees are given taxpayer funded vacations, cops who break the law are put on leave, and district attorneys who drive out-of-their-minds drunk demand they keep their job. Life in the bureaucracy is too sweet to lose, no matter what – and those who hold those positions know how good a deal they have and won’t give it up under any conditions.
What we’re talking about here is really just human nature, of course. Government employees want just what everyone else wants. The only difference is they think they have the power to make good on their whims. Consider this the right’s corollary to the Green Lantern theory of the presidency. In the era of the Administrative State, big government has been giving out too many rings to too many would-be Sinestros. And when it comes to trust in Washington, it’s the fact that this power is centralized in the Administrative State, rather than localized via federalism, which creates the special class of modern ringbearers. It allows them to work together in common purpose, as the progressives intended, as opposed to balancing and checking each other, as the Founders always understood to be essential.
The progressive view that checks and balances must be eliminated, that things should be organized by wise neutral administrators and we should just make things easier for the government to get things done (even Nuclear Option style), is motivated by the belief that the government can then make things a lot better for the people. But of course, in reality, the Administrative State is most interested in making things better for the people in government. And that’s where little things like trust start to break down.
[First published at The Federalist.]