In a recent New York Times column entitled “In Praise of Washington Insiders,” David Brooks rejects the caricature of federal workers as corrupt, overpaid, incompetent sleazebags or swamp creatures.
Maybe he’s right, but this is not the criticism that ordinary Americans would make of the federal bureaucracy. Rather, what troubles them is the replacement of political rule by the rule of experts (or “professionalism”), a radical transformation of the vision of the American founders that Brooks appears to endorse uncritically.
The question is not whether government officials are, as a class, morally or intellectually bad people, but whether their alleged expertise entitles them to rule as a class. Brooks seems to think that when we elect politicians — and, by extension, appoint a body of civil servants to execute the laws and administer the government — what we are essentially doing is hiring highly qualified people to solve our problems for us by virtue of their superior expertise. While this may sound innocuous, it subverts the people’s right to rule themselves.
It’s the same view espoused by Elizabeth Warren, who famously “Has a Plan for That” — in other words: “Elect me, and I will solve the country’s problems with my outsized intelligence and sense of responsibility to the people.”
Brooks fails to see or take seriously that politics is always going to be a realm of contestation over the public good and the laws and norms that bind us together as a political community. If one accepts the rule of experts, then eventually the “expertocracy” will come to be dominated, as it clearly has, by its own parochial vision of the public good.
What makes this especially troubling is that the members of the ruling class have difficulty seeing that their particular vision of the good is anything but pure, enlightened knowledge and selfless judgment — as opposed to the ignorance and selfish interests of the common people, business people and interest groups of society.
To be an “insider” of the kind Brooks describes is almost by definition to be, if not stupid or corrupt, at the very least arrogant. And when has arrogance ever been compatible with wisdom and virtue?
It is on account of such alleged expertise and enlightenment that Brooks praises the “insiders.” But to be an “insider” of the kind he describes is almost by definition to be, if not stupid or corrupt, at the very least arrogant. And when has arrogance ever been compatible with wisdom and virtue?
It causes one to have contempt for “outsiders” — that is, ordinary people, the demos — and to regard them as inferior, incompetent and an obstacle to achieving the common good. What Brooks sees as noble professionalism looks to many like a class of people ruling in their own interests, according to their own lights, with little or no regard for the views of the ordinary people whose interests they claim to represent.
This is what it means for institutions and “elites” to have become estranged from the polity and the people. It’s not the existence of these institutions, agencies and civil servants that’s the problem, but the notion that they are the seat of authority and ultimate rulers in a constitutional republic, rather than the people themselves.
It’s striking to see Brooks go from being an admirer of Ronald Reagan, who quipped that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help!’”, to an ardent defender of the “moral code” of the “insider.”
It’s remarkable, too, that Brooks’ only specific example of a federal civil service job is air traffic controllers, whom Reagan — famously or infamously, depending on your perspective — fired en masse after they went on strike in 1981, his first year in office. The “insider” union negotiators failed to see that the “outsider” Reagan, who thought himself beholden to the American people and their economic interests rather than to a class of enlightened professionals, might call their bluff. Replacements were called in, new controllers were hired under new terms, and the planes continued to take off and land.
Brooks seems to view government and politics in terms of a simple alternative between the rule of the mob and the demagogic “strongmen” they elect on the one hand, and the rule of administrative professionals or government “insiders” on the other. This is the anti-republican and anti-democratic vision of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and of the “enlightened despotism” proponents inspired by Hobbesian thinking. This is the theory of bureaucratic expertise that informs the Progressive movement. This is not the view that underlies the U.S. Constitution and what the Founders called the American experiment in self-government.
“When public servants enter government,” Brooks writes, “they shed their private interests to serve a public role.” Do they, now? One can only imagine what Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton must have thought when they heard defenders of the crown making similar statements 250 years ago.
Andrew J. Bove teaches humanities and works in academic advising at Villanova University.