Melissa Lane (at Aeon) writes about bureaucracy and the rule of law, from Plato to Max Weber. Citing Weber’s fear of the “iron cage” of administrative "over-rationality," Ms. Lane suggests that the current threat may be coming from the opposite direction:
Today, the US faces the threat of what we can think of as the political iron cage breaking down – possibly from executive leadership ignorant or contemptuous of the purposes of the organisation. Though obviously it has accelerated, the threat is not entirely new with the Trump administration. When president in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pioneered the nomination of cabinet secretaries committed to abolishing or drastically curtailing the very agencies they were named to head. President George W Bush named agency administrators such as Michael D Brown, who lacked knowledge of his area of responsibility, as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown’s eventual resignation in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina betokened not heroic defiance but a reaction to the storm of criticism for his lackadaisical response to the crisis. These public officials were not committed to the basic purposes and processes of the bureaucracies they were appointed to lead or serve.
Isn’t it remarkable how politicians who get elected by demonizing the federal government then appoint individuals who are either incompetent at governing or more interested in dismantling the machinery of state than in using it effectively? I’m sure that this has nothing to do with why Washington has supposedly failed the poor suffering white working class, members of which voted in droves for Reagan just as they did for Trump.
When it comes to governing, if there’s one thing worse than the rule of experts with their “over-rationalization” it’s almost certainly the rule of idiots with their “under-rationalization”: that is, the replacement of reason by hyperbole, naked assertion, fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and alternative facts. Melissa Lane notes:
To be sure, we must not be blind to the ways in which the machinery of state will remain a major resource for parties and politicians who seek to control and to advance their own ends. My point is that, while aspects of this machinery might remain intact, challenges to evidence-based reasoning, fair procedure and impartial officialdom – to the whole apparatus of bureaucratic office and the rule of law – threaten to corrode it. Whether in the long run the machinery itself can withstand this corrosion is an open question.
It’s rare to hear (or to read) a kind word for bureaucrats, but in Trump’s America, it has come to this:
There is an irony here. Weber’s fear was that the iron cage of rationalising modernity, including bureaucracy, would stifle liberty, meaning and ultimate value, squeezing out responsible, charismatic politicians. Yet today, faced with the menace of charismatic, reckless politicians, what Weber feared as an iron cage appears to us to be the building block of some of history’s most hard-won rights.
It may be that what we need right now is two, three, many Bartlebys; bureaucrats who, when tasked by our so-called "President" to accommodate some new outrage, resolutely insist "I prefer not to."