Jonah Goldberg: The naked self-interest of the bureaucratic class
FOR UNDERSTANDABLE REASONS, the IRS scandal has largely focused on the political question of whether the White House deliberately targeted opponents. To date there’s no evidence that it did. That’s good for the President, but it may not be good for the country, because if the administration didn’t target opponents, that would mean the IRS has become corrupt all on its own.
In 1939, Bruno Rizzi, a largely forgotten communist intellectual, wrote a hugely controversial book, “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi argued that the Soviet Union wasn’t communist. Rather, it represented a new kind of system, what Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” What the Soviets had done was get rid of the capitalist and aristocratic ruling classes and replace them with a new, equally self-interested ruling class: bureaucrats.
The book wasn’t widely read, but it did reach Bolshevik theoretician Leon Trotsky, who attacked it passionately. Trotsky’s response, in turn, inspired James Burnham, who used many of Rizzi’s ideas in his own 1941 book, “The Managerial Revolution,” in which Burnham argued that something similar was happening in the West. A new class of bureaucrats, educators, technicians, regulators, social workers and corporate directors who worked in tandem with government were re-engineering society for their own benefit. “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on George Orwell’s “1984.”
Now I don’t believe we are becoming anything like 1930s Russia, never mind a real-life “1984.” But this idea that bureaucrats — very broadly defined — can become their own class bent on protecting their interests at the expense of the public seems not only plausible but obviously true.
The evidence is everywhere. Every day it seems there’s another story about teachers unions using their stranglehold on public schools to reward themselves at the expense of children. School choice programs and even public charter schools are under vicious attack, not because they are bad at educating children but because they’re good at it. Specifically, they are good at it because they don’t have to abide by rules aimed at protecting government workers at the expense of students.
The Veterans Affairs scandal can be boiled down to the fact that VA employees are the agency’s most important constituency. The Phoenix VA health-care system created secret waiting lists where patients languished and even died, while the administrator paid out almost $10 million in bonuses to VA employees over the last three years.
Working for the federal government simply isn’t like working for the private sector. Government employees are essentially un-fireable. In the private sector people lose their jobs for incompetence, redundancy or obsolescence all the time. In government, these concepts are virtually meaningless. From a 2011 USA Today article: “Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.”
In 2010, the 168,000 federal workers in Washington, D.C. — who are quite well-compensated — had a job-security rate of 99.74 percent. A HUD spokesman told USA Today that “his department’s low dismissal rate — providing a 99.85 percent job security rate for employees — shows a skilled and committed workforce.”
Obviously, economic self-interest isn’t the only motivation. Bureaucrats no doubt sincerely believe that government is a wonderful thing and that it should be empowered to do ever more wonderful things. No doubt that is why the EPA has taken it upon itself to rewrite American energy policy without so much as a “by your leave” from Congress.
The Democratic Party today is, quite simply, the party of government and the natural home of the managerial class. It is no accident, as the Marxists say, that the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the IRS, gave 94 percent of its political donations during the 2012 election cycle to Democratic candidates openly at war with the Tea Party — the same group singled out by Lois Lerner. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the VA, gave 97 percent of its donations to Democrats at the national level and 100 percent to Democrats at the state level.
We constantly hear how the evil Koch brothers are motivated by a toxic mix of ideology and economic self-interest. Is it so impossible to imagine that a class of workers might be seduced by the same sorts of impulses? It’s true that the already super-rich Kochs would benefit from a freer country. It’s also true that the managerial class would benefit from the bureaucratization of America.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.