Unaccountable government! Bureaucrats run amok! They think they’re better than us while spending our money in ways we don’t approve of! It sounds like a Tea Party screed. In fact, these are the conclusions of Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg’s book What Washington Gets Wrong. They are trying to explain why the public feels so disconnected from government, a worthy objective, and lay blame on arrogant bureaucrats representing the cosmopolitan elite. As a political sentiment, I share their views; as scholarship, they haven’t proved their case.
Bachner and Ginsberg start with the fun idea of turning the tables on government, surveying what elected and career civil servants know about the American public. The results aren’t pretty. Bureaucrats (even by contrast to White House and Congressional staffers) are ignorant about and derisive of the views and circumstances of the public.
The authors press their case further, attempting to establish the “social distance” between federal civil servants and the public. They illustrate that civil servants are less diverse ethnically and politically than the public, as well as better educated and higher-earning. And they acknowledge that the work of the federal government has become so complex since the New Deal came into effect that we rely on bureaucrats to determine the details of legislation and its implementation.
Their argument falters over the fact that even though bureaucrats don’t know what the public thinks, their own views are similar – as Bachner and Ginsberg’s own data illustrate. One example: the authors excoriate Nasa for focusing on human space missions, editorialising that “nothing seems too bizarre for the fertile imaginations of NASA publicists” and “virtually all the scientific payoff could be achieved with much cheaper unmanned flights” – yet they also note that 75 per cent of Americans support the Space Shuttle programme. How are bureaucrats’ views an imposition on the public if they are the same as the public’s?
Bachner and Ginsberg assert that bureaucrats manipulate the public into supporting government, often in conflict with the programmes of elected officials. In lieu of data, the authors too often rely on “it seems reasonable” argumentation and examples of bureaucracy run wild. But the plural of anecdote is not data; at a minimum, the authors would need to show that the cases they cite are the norm rather than outrageous outliers that provoked the very kind of legislative remedies the authors fear are ineffective in controlling “the unelected officials who actually run the government”.
And when did persuading the public to support broader civic goods over their individual desires stop being a component of governance? Bachner and Ginsberg make it sound as though the only reason government needs to enforce the law is that “the official view of the world is inconsistent with citizens’ view of the world, leading to rules that make no sense to ordinary Americans”. But that is not so.
They do, however, use a brilliant trope that I hope every conservative politician takes up, which is to parallel civil servants to doctors. Bachner and Ginsberg argue that ignorance of patients by doctors is malpractice and that we should hold civil servants to the same standard. That’s some fine punditry. They do not, however, prove that civil servants subject to political oversight and the relentless muckraking of journalists are an equivalent danger. And that’s the difference between punditry and scholarship.
Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She was senior policy adviser on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign.
What Washington Gets Wrong: The Unelected Officials Who Actually Run the Government and Their Misconceptions about the American People
By Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg
Prometheus, 265pp, £24.00
Published 4 October 2016