Conservatives often talk about the urgent need to shrink the size and cost of government. A large government, by definition, makes more rules and regulations, and these rules and regulations always shrink the scope of individual liberty.
More bureaucrats and enforcers must be paid; either this means higher taxes and thus less economic freedom, or larger national debts and thus less economic freedom for our children. A certain minimum level of government is required to maintain public order and manage shared infrastructure, but we passed that point a long time ago.
There's another reason to want a small government that's not so often discussed, because at first it sounds unreasonable. It's no less true, however, and in some ways is the most powerful small-government reason of all:
Bureaucracy, by its very nature, promotes and enforces evil.
You are probably thinking, "What sort of nonsense is this? I know plenty of government employees, and they may be greedy, lazy, incompetent, even venal, but not out-and-out evil."
No, the overwhelming majority of them are not; as we've written before, government employees are no better and no worse than anyone else. Most of them just want to live solid middle-class lives and enjoy a comfortable retirement.
The point is not that individual bureaucrats are themselves particularly evil, or even that government service is specially attractive to evil people - though in certain particular areas that may be so.
The point is that bureaucracy itself, by the way in which it inherently separates responsibility from authority, always causes evil to be done even when no individual person is trying to make it so.
Let's revisit a classic example we discussed earlier, in which a small child was mistakenly given an alcoholic lemonade to drink at a ball game, and the father was arrested and the child sent to government care even though everyone involved thought it was crazy.
As Scragged writer Will Offensicht wrote:
The police officer who interviewed Ratte [the boy's father] at the hospital said that her supervisor insisted on referring the matter to Child Protective Services. Federal law makes police officers "mandatory reporters;" they face serious fines and perhaps jail time if they don't report something which might be child abuse.
The CPS workers seemed to be more annoyed with the cop than with Ratte; they told him the whole thing was unnecessary as they drove Leo away. The Free Press explains, "But there was really nothing any of them could do, they all said. They were just adhering to protocol, following orders." [emphasis added]
Somewhere far, far up the line, a law was passed and regulations written. Was there some evil monster in the Congress scheming to destroy families? Of course not - as Walter Mondale memorably said, "Not even Richard Nixon is in favor of child abuse!"
Yet the end result of this law was a child snatched from his family and traumatized; that child will never again feel safe, nor will he ever trust the police or the rest of the government. That is evil.
What about the cops and social workers involved? As the original article made plain, they were obeying their sworn duty to the law. The law required the cop to report the matter; the law required the boy's removal by the social workers. For them to do otherwise would require them to break the law and their oaths. They were placed in an impossible position with no right answer.
So, who is to blame? Who should be fired?
Everyone involved had the very best of intentions. Everyone involved did precisely as their organizations demanded and as the law specified; it would be unjust to blame any one individual.
Yet evil was done, and is being done, and will continue to be done on an ongoing basis, and nobody seems to be able to stop it or even plausibly blame anyone. We explain it thus - "the system."
In the old days, authority and responsibility were far more closely tied. The local justice or sheriff could lock somebody up if he felt it necessary. Sometimes he'd do so unjustly, but everyone knew who was being unjust - hence the term "the unjust judge."
Victims knew who to appeal to, to complain about, or to tar and feather if nothing else. The authority and the responsibility were clear, and embodied in the same person.
Today, apparently, nobody in the bureaucracy has clear authority to make the right decision. Everyone must follow written procedures put together with the best of intentions by Somebody Else, who themselves have not the authority to change them.
Our Founders never envisioned this sort of system. Congress was supposed to write laws and also to bear the blame for lousy ones.
Unfortunately, Congress doesn't write the laws that affect our daily lives on the ground any more. They pass massive laws that nobody's ever read, but even those rarely specify the precise rules and regulations we all must follow.
Modern laws simply lay out general guidelines and then grant authority to unelected, nameless, faceless bureaucrats ensconced in an alphabet-soup agency to "figure out the rest and make it work." Thus we are presented with a mammoth Federal Register of infinite rules no one has ever or could ever read, but which we all must obey under penalty of prison or worse. Is this the life of a free people?
In the British legal tradition, powers granted could not be delegated - that is, Parliament, the King's men, or the courts were allowed to do whatever they were allowed to do, but they couldn't delegate their power to anyone else. As John Locke put it:
The Legislative cannot transfer the Power of Making Laws to any other hands. For it being but a delegated Power from the People, they, who have it, cannot pass it over to others.
Early America followed the same rule. As late as 1892, our Supreme Court ruled
That congress cannot delegate legislative power to the president is a principle universally recognized as vital to the integrity and maintenance of the system of government ordained by the constitution.
The New Deal ended all that. With precious few restrictions, Congress is now allowed to delegate whatever authority they like to the executive-branch bureaucracy, the only limit being that there has to be some intelligible "guiding principle."
"Stop child abuse" is a guiding principle just like "prevent financial meltdown." We can all support them both. By current case law, Congress is perfectly entitled to pass a law for the prevention of child abuse and another to prevent financial meltdown, leaving all details to be ironed out by appropriate regulations created by an agency. In fact, they've done so repeatedly.
Have we all not heard that "the devil is in the details"? It certainly was for the unfortunate Ratte family. It certainly is for countless Americans harassed by unthinking, unreasonable bureaucrats who are "just following the rules" - rules that no known person wrote and that no known person can change.
It's the same with financial regulation. All the costs will be passed on to people who borrow money and economic growth will suffer. The intentions are the very best; the results will be awful, and nobody will be blamed.
The problem is not caused by evil individuals - there are relatively few of those. The solution, therefore, is not to replace bad individuals with good ones because it won't help. As we've seen, "the system" can be full of good, well-meaning, law-abiding individuals and yet the end result be evil.
The problem isn't the individuals; it's "the system" itself.
Well, if "the system" is evil, shouldn't it be abolished? Our governmental system, in the sense that it affects us on the ground, is bureaucracy. All the incentives of bureaucrats are bad ones; intentional or not, the results of their work will always be perverse.
After a century's worth of experience letting Congress delegate lawmaking to unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch, the only question is why we're still surprised - and why we haven't done away with an evil the Founders never intended.