Barack Obama, Woodrow Wilson and the Administrative State

by Crocker on March 14, 2010, 8:31 am

in History,Philosophy,Politics

This past week, George Will weighed in on Hope ‘n Change’s eerie channeling of Woodrow Wilson’s theology of the progressive administrative state. By way of welcoming Will to a party in progress, I’ve republished my own essay on Wilson and the Administrative State from March 2009.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Woodrow Wilson was impatient both with natural law and the untidiness of a limited government of separated powers and, indeed, with the entire disheveled business of politicking itself. He was deeply influenced by the ‘dirtiness’ of the Tilden-Hayes compromise in the election of 1876 and felt at the time that politics was no longer a suitable occupation for upstanding young men.

And Wilson most certainly felt himself to be an upstanding Christian man in an age that believed that progressive humanity could finally remake even the intractable human heart. And a progressing humanity required an apolitical and more ‘scientific’ way to administer day-to-day government, which was inextricably interwoven with Congressional politicking and tainted by deal-making with the ‘special interests’.

Reduced to essentials, Wilson wanted Congress to stop exercising its legislative powers and delegate its constitutional functions to administrators who would be both professional and beyond politics. As a man who never doubted his own rectitude, he believed that similar men could be found to administer the government without fear or favor according to scientific principles.

Wilson placed a premium on expertise. Therefore, this new class would be the experts, the people with mastery over all the ‘principles and details’. Educated specialists who were possessed of insight beyond the masses and certainly beyond that of mere politicians.

And with the earnestness for which he became famous, Wilson devoted himself early on to the study of administration and in 1887 published his famous essay ‘The Study of Administration’ in Political Science Quarterly. The essay is probably his best-remembered piece of political writing and exhibits the same European influences characteristic of his thought in general.

For Wilson learned administration under the tutelage of Richard Ely at Johns Hopkins who had himself studied under European specialists such as Bluntschli at Heidelberg. And the intellectual tradition in which he studied was both Hegelian and historicist. In the ‘Study’, Wilson was quite candid about the novelty of his ideas, confessing that the science of administration ‘is a foreign science, speaking very little the language of English or American principle. . . . It has been developed by French and German professors.’

And these professors, like Hegel, viewed bureaucrats as the apolitical guardians of the public good as expressed through the organic state. To the extent that politics and administration conflicted with one another, politicians must inevitably give way to the administrators. Should public opinion intrude itself into administration, it must be accommodated ”efficiently’ without becoming ‘meddlesome’. The people’s sovereignty must be managed, in Wilson’s view, by elite leadership who thoroughly understood what ‘progress’ requires.

But the real novelty of Wilson’s ‘science’ is not administration itself but the idea that, in Ronald Pestritto’s words, administration is ‘an authority distinct from politics and outside of political control’ with the American tradition being ‘corrected by German state theory.’ As Pestritto has observed:

Wilson recognized that his proposed system was predicated on a novelty in American constitutionalism: namely, that there are legitimate state powers beyond those granted by the constitution to the political branches of government. These powers are administrative, and their exercise independent from politics requires a transformation in the traditional understanding of American institutions.

And for Wilson, as for Hegel, the educated experts populating the bureaucracy would ‘see more clearly than the people themselves the objective public will, and were to know best the administrative means necessary to achieve it.’

And who can deny that Wilson’s views have largely prevailed?

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{ 1 comment }

ottovbvs September 29, 2014 at 3:11 pm

The creation of the administrative state was essentially a by product of the re-writing of the social contract and the change in America’s geopolitical status that took place in the roughly 60 years between the presidencies of TR and LBJ, and reached its highpoint during the three great crises of the FDR/Truman presidencies. Wilson was certainly a player in this process, although not the most important, and it wasn’t a matter of philosophy more a question of practicalities. You couldn’t, for example, run US participation in WW 1 or manage the financial system of the world’s greatest industrial and commercial power on the basis of amateur voluntarism and laissez faire economics. Essentially this contract re-writing involved the US government assuming responsibility for the physical safety and material well-being of all its citizens; the creation of the administrative state to oversee this increasingly complex process; and expansion of the tax base to pay for it all. Wilson’s views have prevailed, if that’s the way you want to look at it, because they were the only practical response to new realities. Furthermore, contrary to some simplistic fantasies held in certain quarters, none of this is going away.

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