When historians look back on the period between 2001 and 2011, they will be amazed that a nation that professed to hate bureaucracy produced so much of it.
During the first part of this period, the Republicans were in control. They expanded a vast national security bureaucracy. In their series in The Washington Post, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin detail the size of this apparatus. More than 1,200 government agencies and 1,900 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs at around 10,000 sites across the country. An estimated 854,000 people have top-secret security clearance. These analysts produce 50,000 reports a year — a flow of paper so great that many are completely ignored.
In the second part of the period, Democrats were in control. They augmented the national security bureaucracy but spent the bulk of their energies expanding bureaucracies in domestic spheres.
First, they passed a health care law. This law created 183 new agencies, commissions, panels and other bodies, according to an analysis by Robert Moffit of the Heritage Foundation. These include things like the Quality Assurance and Performance Improvement Program, an Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee and a Cures Acceleration Network Review Board.
The purpose of the new apparatus was simple: to give government experts the power to analyze and rationalize the nation’s health care system. A team of experts on the newly created Independent Medicare Advisory Council was ordered to review and streamline Medicare. A team of experts within the Office of Personnel Management was directed to help set standards for insurance companies in the health care exchanges. Teams of experts serving on comparative effectiveness boards were told to survey data and determine which medical treatments work best and most efficiently.
Democrats also passed a financial reform law. The law that originally created the Federal Reserve was a mere 31 pages. The Sarbanes-Oxley banking reform act, passed in 2002, was only 66 pages. But the 2010 financial reform law was 2,319 pages, an intricately engineered technocratic apparatus. As Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute noted, the financial reform law is seven times longer than the last five pieces of banking legislation combined.
The law calls upon government experts to make some heroic judgments. For example, it calls upon regulators to break up banks that might be about to pose a risk to the country’s economy. That is to say, investors may believe a bank is stable. The executives of the bank may believe it is stable. But the regulators are called upon to exercise their superior vision and determine which banks are stable and which are not.
When historians look back on this period, they will see it as another progressive era. It is not a liberal era — when government intervenes to seize wealth and power and distribute it to the have-nots. It’s not a conservative era, when the governing class concedes that the world is too complicated to be managed from the center. It’s a progressive era, based on the faith in government experts and their ability to use social science analysis to manage complex systems.
This progressive era is being promulgated without much popular support. Already this effort is generating a fierce, almost culture-war-style backlash. It is generating a backlash among people who do not have faith in Washington, who do not have faith that trained experts have superior abilities to organize society, who do not believe national rules can successfully contend with the intricacies of local contexts and cultures.
This progressive era amounts to a high-stakes test. If the country remains safe and the health care and financial reforms work, then we will have witnessed a life-altering event. We’ll have received powerful evidence that central regulations can successfully organize fast-moving information-age societies.
If the reforms fail, then the popular backlash will be ferocious. Large sectors of the population will feel as if they were subjected to a doomed experiment they did not consent to. They will feel as if their country has been hijacked by a self-serving professional class mostly interested in providing for themselves.
If that backlash gains strength, well, what’s the 21st-century version of the guillotine?
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.