It’s Better Not to Play the Game at All

In his lead essay, Philip Wallach decries the transformation of the American political system from one of representative government into one in which governmental power and decisionmaking resides with unelected “experts” within the executive bureaucracy–the administrative state. He also paints a fairly bleak picture of our ability to reverse the direction of this transformation. I share his distaste for the administrative state, but perhaps not his level of pessimism. But then, since I am a libertarian, this may simply be due to my tendency to indulge in impractical escapism, my willingness, as he says, to uncaringly “flip [my] fellow citizens the bird,” and my willingness to “not play[] the game at all.”

Of these three accusations, I am willing to plead guilty only to the last. Against the first two, I would try to mount a defense. So, let us first consider the charge of impractical escapism.

I believe that this charge and Wallach’s pessimism derive from his frame of reference, which is limited to the political. If I were a supporter of representative government looking through a lens focused exclusively on the political realm, I, too, would be depressed. For I would see no political mechanism that could transform our current administrative state into a representative government.

Happily for my emotional well-being, I am unwilling to narrow my focus exclusively to the political realm. I see the world as divided between the realms of individual and collective choice. The realm of individual choice is the realm in which individuals are free to decide how to act for themselves and personally reap the rewards and suffer the detriments of those decisions. The realm of collective choice is the realm in which a single choice binds all members of society. What color shirt I wear today is a matter of individual choice. Whether the federal government of the United States should build a wall along the Mexican border is a matter of collective choice. The political realm is the realm of collective choice.

If the political realm is limited to the formation of general rules that regulate interpersonal relationships, perhaps it could function without much of an administrative state. Rules that simply tell people how they are permitted to behave, such as laws prohibiting murder, theft, and fraud, or laws authorizing (or prohibiting) marriage between members of the same sex, could perhaps be implemented without a great deal of bureaucracy. But this is not true for collective decisions involving the regulation of the economy, the redistribution of wealth, or, generally, the expenditure of public funds to realize particular ends.

Elected representatives have neither the expertise nor enough hours in the day to oversee the implementation of such complex regulatory matters. The more areas of human life that move into the realm of collective choice, the more necessary non-elected economic, scientific, and other experts become to implement any such decisions.

Further, to the extent collective choices involve the expenditure of resources, they require first assembling the pool of resources and then designating people to make the necessary distributions. But as Ludwig von Mises pointed out as long ago as 1944,[1] in the absence of market pressure to use resources efficiently enough to generate a profit, there must be some means of controlling the behavior of those authorized to make the expenditures. As he explained,

The only alternative to profit-seeking business is bureaucratic management. It would be utterly impracticable to delegate to any individual or group of individuals the power to draw freely on public funds. It is necessary to curb the power of the managers of nationalized or municipalized systems by bureaucratic makeshifts if they are not to be made irresponsible spenders of public money and if their management is not to disorganize the whole budget.[2]

If one restricts one’s focus to the political realm, pessimism over the possibility of representative government without the administrative state is not only justified, it is mandatory. This is because it is a mistake to see representative government and the administrative state as alternative mechanisms of political organization. They are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked by the requirements of collective decisionmaking. Under these circumstances, it is the belief that representative government could function without the administrative state, rather than the exhortation to try to shift areas of collective choice back into the realm of individual choice, that constitutes impractical escapism.

I would also resist the charge that libertarians are uncaringly dismissive of the interests of their fellow citizens in advocating the reduction of the realm of collective choice. Wallach may well be correct that “[w]e live in a democracy full of fellow-citizens who think that ‘crucial functions’ are very extensive indeed.” But it is not disrespectful to my fellow citizens to point out that they are unlikely to realize the benefits of these functions if the functions are performed by political agencies. Politicians are excellent at passing legislation guaranteeing justice that is never realized and promising services that are never delivered. It is worth noting that Democrats are currently campaigning against the evils of income inequality after eight years of pursuing policies designed to prop up Wall Street at the expense of savers and those on fixed incomes.

Further, it is not inappropriately dismissive to oppose public demands for extensive government services. I am not “flipping the bird” at my daughter when I resist her ardent demands that I buy her a new toy or do her homework for her. Taking such an attitude is problematic only if one is functioning within a democratic political framework in which the desires of large numbers of people magically become invested with moral authority. But here is where I must plead guilty to the third of Wallach’s charges, that of not playing the game at all.

Like him, I am skeptical of the prospects of rolling back the administrative state through political action. There is no way to oppose the administrative state by working within the system, if by the system we mean the democratic political system. The idea that supporters of small government (what Wallach derisively calls “anti-technocratic technocrats”) will ever come to power as a result of the knowledgeable support of a majority of the electorate is as much a fantasy as is a large representative government without the administrative state. As evidence, one need only point to the current presidential nominating campaign.

Indeed, my attitude toward politics is nicely captured by the denouement of the 1983 movie WarGames, in which a high school hacker inadvertently causes the supercomputer controlling the U. S. nuclear arsenal to play a game of global thermonuclear war with him. In order to prevent the computer from destroying the world, the hacker has it play tic-tac-toe with itself billions of times. The computer then stops playing the global thermonuclear war game and declares, “An interesting game. The only way to win is not to play.” In my opinion, this is a perfect description of the game of politics.[3]

I remain optimistic because I do not believe that it is necessary for the majority of the public to understand the benefits of free markets for there to be positive change. The best way to counteract the administrative state is to outrun it. Technological developments that create new ways of doing things that outpace government regulation–think PayPal, Uber, Bitcoin; think how long it took the feds to get around to regulating the internet–may be all that is needed.

Returning to a freer, less bureaucratically regulated society would be nice. But if that really is impossible, I would be satisfied with one in which the realm of individual choice–the market–was expanding slightly more rapidly than the realm of collective choice–the administrative state.



[1]Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy (Center for Futures Education 1983) (1944).

[2]Id. at 63.

[3] See F.A. Hayek, Why the Worst Get on Top in The Road to Serfdom 134-152 (1944).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philip Wallach describes rising skepticism about the administrative state in our representative government. But what can be done about it? Populists promise to return the government to the people, and yet effective government in the modern world to a high degree requires technical expertise. Libertarians have a telling diagnosis of the problem, says Wallach, but few workable solutions. If Congress is to regain control of the sprawling administrative state, it will have to demonstrate that it is willing and able to govern instead.

Response Essays

  • Clyde Wayne Crews finds much to agree with in Philip Wallach’s diagnosis of administrative sprawl. But then he asks: Why not rein it in? Other countries have done so, and we have even taken some important and bipartisan steps in that direction before. The bureaucratic pretense of expertise has never been so clearly exposed as it is today, and we should take the opportunity to improve the regulatory environment before incipient technologies, like autonomous cars and commercial drone transport, are caught in the regulatory web.

  • Adrian Vermeule openly doubts that the administrative state faces a legitimacy crisis. He observes that Congress itself created the administrative state, and that it remains firmly in control of its creature. Moreover, the public appears fairly content with the administrative state that we have, and certainly shows no inclination to scrap the whole thing. Both these observations should count, he suggests, in any consideration of the administrative state’s legitimacy. In short, there is no crisis here, and no radical solutions are warranted.

  • John Hasnas does not think that the administrative state can be reformed. But it can be outpaced. This, he says, offers hope for libertarians, whereas politics does not. The administrative state is inherently slow to adjust to new social developments, and liberty will always exist just a few steps ahead of it.