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Beyond Bureaucrat Bashing
Loathing the administrative state, fearing the deep state.
[On the September 22, 2023 episode of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama discussed his new article “In Defense of the Deep State.” His exchanges with host Mona Charen and panelist Benjamin Wittes, transcribed below, have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.]
Mona Charen: You say that the deep state, or the administrative state, needs defending. So, what is your elevator pitch about why we need to stand up for bureaucracy?
Francis Fukuyama: I think that you simply cannot have a modern democracy without a competent professional bureaucracy—civil servants that are chosen on the basis of merit, rather than on the basis of political patronage. That’s the system that we used to have before the passage of the Pendleton Act back in 1883, where everybody was basically a political appointee.
It’s just become a staple of Republican rhetoric these days to say that they’re going to somehow abolish the administrative state. Vivek Ramaswamy is the latest: In the Republican debate, he said he’s going to fire 75 percent of civil servants and abolish the IRS and any number of other cabinet departments.
And if a Republican is elected next year—it doesn’t have to be Donald Trump—I think any Republican is then going to carry out a plan that’s been developed at the Heritage Foundation and in other places to vastly increase the number of political appointees and then to fire as many bureaucrats as possible. . . .
And I just think that this is going to be a devastating and disastrous attack on our professional civil service. Americans do not appreciate how important it is to have basically nonpartisan people with some expertise and devotion to public service running the U.S. government. And what I find dismaying is I can’t think of a Democrat who has stood up and tried to defend the administrative state. Every Republican wants to get rid of the administrative state. And nobody is explaining to the American people why you need to delegate some important authorities to people that know what they’re doing. . . .
Charen: You do acknowledge in the piece that some of the conservative critiques about overreaching bureaucracy have merit. . . .
Fukuyama: It’s a matter of balance, because you can certainly find cases of bureaucratic overreach. If you listen to the rhetoric of a lot of Republicans, they would have you believe that we’re living in this bureaucratic tyranny, where we’re subject to these rules that nobody voted on.
Now, first of all, I think a lot of those things exist at a state level rather than at a federal level. I mean, living in California, I can give you lots of examples of sort of out-of-control rulemaking. But I think that people don’t recognize that there are actually mechanisms of control for cutting back these authorities. And the real failure has actually been legislative. . . . I think that these agencies are in a way trying to fill a vacuum that is left by the dysfunctions of our political system. . . .
Benjamin Wittes: Your defense is, as I read it anyway, of the kind of conventional post-1930s-era administrative state. It seems to me that there’s something novel in the branding of this as the ‘deep state,’ particularly its law enforcement apparatus, which is an intelligence apparatus, which has connotations from the Turkish and Egyptian and Pakistani examples where the term “deep state” comes from. . . . And I guess I’m curious whether your framing of this as a defense of the deep state, whether you’re adequately distinguishing between the American administrative state, and countries where the term “deep state” comes from, which is, I think, what the coiners of the phrase in the American context are sort of trying to imply about the American system—that it’s really actually ruled by a sort of shadowy cabal of military intelligence child molesters who eat in the basement of pizza places where they keep the kids. . . .
Fukuyama: Part of the reason I use the “deep state” instead of the “administrative state” is precisely to neutralize the very sinister and pejorative connotations of that term.
Because in fact, I think the security part of the American state is pretty transparent and pretty much well under the control of political authorities. There is no Turkish-style military cabal. This is something that’s in the fervid imaginations of various conspiracy theorists on the right, and so what I wanted to do by using that somewhat provocative title was to say, Yeah, okay, we got a deep state, which is otherwise known as the administrative state. And it’s pretty harmless because actually we have the mechanisms for controlling it.
Now that Trump is under multiple indictments, they’re doubling down on this idea that there’s this extremely sinister security component, but that’s a charge that really needs to be answered very clearly.