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Saturday, February 04, 2012

administrative magic bullets

Administrative law offers a series of magic bullets in which we teach and are told that if only we get something right -- the delegation of authority into separate powers, the (re-)organization of the executive branch, the right administrative procedures, the perfect flow of information to and from the public, the correct level of judicial scrutiny, etc. -- then surely the government will be effective and legitimate. This desire for a fix dates back, obviously, at least to the founding, but it's clearly a modern desire for a means to tame the unruly beast of the state -- which of course is always in our particular era finally spinning far too out of control to bear. Al Gore was neither the first nor has he been the last to "reinvent government."

In his 1838 novel The Bureaucrats (also translated as The Government Clerks, available in traditional book form here or as a free ebook in an alternative translation), Balzac offers a lovely snapshot of this, more than 150 years before Al Gore, new governance, and other contemporary plans brought forth by our current entrepreneurial administrative fixers. The Bureaucrats narrates the sad tale of the brillant administrative reformer Rabourdin, who has devised a wonderful plan to reform the state; it is of course frustrated by the typical Balzacian world of bourgeois schemers and evil characters. Here's Balzac's summary of the Rabourdin plan, a plan whose general approach captures the promise of every reform since:

Long practical experience had taught Rabourdin that, in all things, perfection is brought about by changes made in favor of simplicity. To economize is to simplify. To simplify is to eliminate unnecessary machinery: thus cuts must be made. Furthermore, his system rested upon a weeding out process and the establishment of a new administrative order.

We still await this new, simple administrative order, still coming just around the bend 175 years after Balzac narrated an early failure to implement it.

Posted by Mark Fenster on February 4, 2012 at 12:28 PM | Permalink

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