The early Progressives created the foundation for the administrative state we now endure. They made two assumptions that stood up poorly over time. The first was that the administrative state would avoid partisanship; that our social problems were beyond controversy. We were united in the need to solve these problems; there was a general will that subverted the individual rights embedded in the constitution. Because these problems were non political we should defer solutions to an educated elite to solve them in the administrative state beyond their political interests.
While the Progressives imbued the administrative state with moral and political authority they overestimated its competence. The second false assumption was that this uber-qualified elite would be capable of managing a complex society while trying to fulfill an endless list of social objectives.
As comedian Ron White said when being read his Miranda rights while being arrested for public intoxication, “I had the right to remain silent, but I did not have the ability.”
The Administrative State has been given the right to micromanage our social problems (though there is a growing challenge to this claim) but they still lack the ability.
Kevin Williamson addresses this shortcoming in Solving Social Problems Will Never Be Easy
If designing an apartment building is complex, then how much more complex is designing, say, a national system of regulating and subsidizing health-insurance companies, medical providers, employers, state governments, and — oh! — just about every one of the 327.2 million residents of this country from sea to shining sea, in a way that optimizes at least a few hundred major criteria that are in many cases either rivalrous or incompatible? How much more complicated than that is reorganizing more or less the entirety of human economic activity in simultaneous pursuit of environmental and social-justice goals involving competing factors so complex that the relationships among them are literally incomprehensible?
All of the Instagram-ready chin-up posturing and declarations of moral urgency in the world will not change the facts of problems before us or render inoperative Immanuel Kant’s maxim that “ought implies can.” The adjectives “ambitious,” “inspiring,” “audacious,” and “sweeping” should be met with dread by those who value boring things like reason, responsibility — and reality.
Also stated wisely by Hayek, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Two developments rendered their assumptions invalid. Economic thought developed that learned of the complexity of market forces and the effect prices played on allocating resources based on consumer demands. The ability of the market to consider thousands of choices among unrelated participants was greatly underestimated. These millions of participants held an immense amount of knowledge together, even if they held very little individually. The administrative elite could certainly know more than any individual and more than certain isolated groups, but they could never know more than the entire market system.
The second development was the ever increasing list of social benefits that the elite insisted come under their domain. Part of this was the result of the progressive shift from the constitutional duty of protecting rights to the progressive vision of government as the grantor of rights. Once granting rights and privileges is enlisted in the duty of securing an electoral majority, new rights will always be forthcoming.
This is magnified by the increasing complexity of lawmaking. Lawmaking is so arduous that we try to make laws that accomplish aims unrelated to the laws’ stated purpose to avoid beginning the process anew. Social justice goals invade every page of every bill. The effectiveness of these laws and regulations decrease as their length increases. Regulations become untenable as complying with one regulation requires violation of another. This causes confusion among the regulators and the regulated, delaying for years what was once relatively simple decisions.
I call it the Robocop Syndrome from the movie of 1987. In the first movie the cyborg was programmed with ONLY three directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. In the sequel Robocop 2 he is resurrected and programed by a committee with hundreds of directives that makes him useless.
As we have learned more about the complexity and functions of markets we have also learned of the difficulty of controlling them and the hubris required to believe we can. This is further complicated by a political culture that has undermined the institutions that protect these rights, and replaced them with a central government that does not understand its limits, either political or functional.