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The American administrative state (AS) was borne out of frustration by statist reformers with expanded voting rights. It continues to be an effective force of exclusion and discrimination today, according to Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School. I’ve discussed Hamburger’s commentary in the past on the extra-legal power often wielded by administrative agencies, and I will quote him liberally in what follows. At the first link above, he provides some historical context on the origins of the AS and discusses the inherently discriminatory nature of administrative law and jurisprudence.

An Abrogation of Voting Rights

Hamburger quotes Woodrow Wilson from 1887 on the difficulty of appealing to a broad electorate, a view that was nothing short of elitist and bigoted:

“‘… the reformer is bewildered’ by the need to persuade ‘a voting majority of several million heads.’ He worried about the diversity of the nation, which meant that the reformer needed to influence ‘the mind, not of Americans of the older stocks only, but also of Irishmen, of Germans, of Negroes.’ Put another way, ‘the bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes.’

Wow! Far better, thought Wilson, to leave the administration of public policy to a class of educated technocrats and thinkers whose actions would be largely independent of the voting public. But Wilson spoke out of both sides of his mouth: On one hand, he said that administration “lies outside the proper sphere of politics“, but he also insisted in the same publication (“The Study of Administration“) that public administration “must be at all points sensitive to public opinion“! Unfortunately, the views of largely independent public administrators seldom align with the views of the broader public.

Administration and Prejudice

Wilson was elected President 25 years later, and his administration did much to expand the administrative powers of the federal executive. Over the years, the scope of these powers would expand to include far more than mere administrative duties. Administrative rule-making would come to form a deep body of administrative law. And while traditional legislation would nominally serve to “enable” this activity, it has expanded in ways that are not straightforwardly connected to statute, and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans has been massive. Furthermore, a separate legal system exists for adjudicating disputes between the public and administrative agencies, with entirely separate rules and guarantees than our traditional legal system:

It is bad enough that administrative proceedings deny defendants many of the Constitution’s guaranteed civil procedures. … In addition, all administrative proceedings that penalize or correct are criminal in nature, and they deny defendants their procedural rights, such as their right to a jury and their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Of course, these administrative proceedings deny procedural rights to all Americans, but they are especially burdensome on some, such as the poor.

The AS has truly become a fourth, and in many ways dominant, branch of government. Checks and balances on its actions are woefully inadequate, and indeed, Wilson considered that a feature! It represents a usurpation of voting rights, but one that is routinely overlooked by defenders of universal suffrage. It is also highly prejudiced and discriminatory in its impact, which is routinely overlooked by those purporting to fight discrimination.

Bio-Medical Discrimination

Hamburger devotes some of his discussion to Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which are mandated by federal law to conduct prior reviews of research in various disciplines. These boards are generally under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services. One major objective of IRBs is to prevent research involving human subjects, but this prohibition can be very misguided, and the reviews impose costly burdens and delays of studies, often stopping them altogether on trivial grounds:

This prior review inevitably delays and prevents a vast array of much entirely innocent bio-medical research. And because the review candidly focuses on speech in both the research and its publication, it also delays and prevents much bio-medical publication.

The consequences, particularly for minorities, are devastating. Although supposedly imposed by the federal government in response to scientific mistreatment of black individuals, such as at Tuskegee, the very solicitousness of IRBs for minorities stymies research on their distinctive medical problems. …

When government interferes with medical research and its publication—especially when it places administrative burdens on research and publication concerning minorities—the vast costs in human life are entirely predictable and, of course, discriminatory.

Stifling Political Speach

Hamburger tells the story of Hiram Evans, a 1930s crusader against religious influence on voters and legislators. Evans also happened to be the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Hamburger classifies Evans’ agitation as an important force behind nativist demands to outlaw religious speech in politics. Ultimately, Congress acquiesced, imposing limits on certain speech by non-profits. Individuals are effectively prohibited from fully participating in the political process through religious and other non-profit organizations by Section (501)(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Of course, tax-exempt status is critical to the survival and growth of many of these institutions. More traditionally religious individuals are often heavily reliant upon their faith-based organizations not just for practicing their faith, but as centers of intellectual and social life. Needless to say, politics intersects with these spheres, and to prohibit political speech by these organizations has an out-sized discriminatory impact on their members.

The insulation of the AS from the democratic process, and the effective limits on religious speech, often mean there is little leeway or tolerance within the AS for individuals whose religious beliefs run counter to policy:

The difference between representative and administrative policymaking is painfully clear. When a legislature makes laws, the policies that bear down on religion are made by persons who feel responsive to religious constituents and who are therefore usually open to considering exemptions or generally less severe laws.

But there are other fundamental biases against religious faith and practices within the AS:

… when policies come from administrative agencies, they are made by persons who are chosen or fired by the executive, not the public, and so are less responsive than legislators to the distinctive needs of a diverse people. They are expected, moreover, to maintain an ethos of scientism and rationality, which—however valuable for some purposes—is indifferent and sometimes even antagonistic to relatively orthodox or traditional religion, let alone the particular needs of local religious communities.

Sucking Life From the Republic

The administrative state imposes a variety of economic burdens on the private sector. This is not just costly to economic growth. It also creates innumerable opportunities for rent-seeking by interest groups of all kinds, including private corporations whose competitive interests often lead them to seek advantage outside of traditional participation in markets.

Hamburger’s arguments are even more fundamental to the proper functioning of a republic, but they are probably difficult for many journalists and politicians to fully grasp. He identifies some core structural defects of the administrative state, and he does so with great passion. He sums things up well in his closing:

… was founded on racial and class prejudice, it is still supported by class prejudice. Moreover, by displacing laws made by elected lawmakers, it continues to discriminate against minorities of all sorts. Along the way, it stifles much scientific inquiry and publication with devastating costs, particularly for minorities. It is especially discriminatory against many religious Americans. And it eviscerates the Constitution’s procedural rights, not least in cases criminal in nature.

So, if you are inclined to defund oppression, defund the administrative state. If you want to tear down disgraceful monuments, demolish the prejudiced and discriminatory power that is Woodrow Wilson’s most abysmal legacy. If you are worried about stolen votes, do not merely protest retail impediments to voting, but broadly reject the wholesale removal of legislative power out of the hands of elected legislators. And if you are concerned about the injustice of the criminal justice system, speak up against the loss of juries, due process, and other rights when criminal proceedings get transmuted into administrative proceedings.

Little in America is as historically prejudiced or systematically discriminatory as administrative power. It is a disgrace, and it is time to take it down.