All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1974

On “Using” the Government

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

My old friend was reminiscing about the Roosevelt years. In his youth he had been a Republican, but when the New Deal battalions took over Washington he found himself marching to their drum.

He has mellowed considerably. As we exchanged ideas recently he was distressed about the nation’s deteriorating financial situation. Rather surprisingly, he inveighed against “spending billions as though they were millions”; and he expressed great concern about the inevitably disastrous results of long-continued deficit financing.

But he still looks back nostalgically to the events of the Nineteen Thirties; and I suspect he secretly feels that he participated in a kind of sanctified crusade. Suddenly, after a thoughtful silence, he made a casual remark (or made it casually) that slowly dawned on me as significant, and led finally to the writing of these paragraphs.

“We were terribly excited in those days,” he said, “about making America great. We thought nothing of long hours or hard work. We welcomed ideas, and we used government as I think it ought to be used.”

They used government as they thought it ought to be used!

He was not being facetious, and certainly no irony was intended. It was a simple statement of an operating principle or method that required no justification, and that apparently aroused no question in his mind.

He and many of his political associates of the New Deal era were men and women of humanity and good intention. They had lived through several years of economic depression. It was not limited to America but was a world catastrophe. It was not as bad as they liked to paint it, but it was bad enough in all conscience, and there was hardship and suffering along with business failures and bankruptcies. Something was wrong, they felt, with a politico-economic system in which such a disaster could occur. They wanted to do something about it. They wanted to see a better and more stable society, in which people could all be safe and happy.

And so they decided to have the government take charge of all their good intentions. They would “use” the government in the way they thought it ought to be used —which, though some of them did not realize it, was as a coercive agency to compel everybody to accept, be governed by, and pay for their particular ideas for insuring economic stability, spreading wealth, curbing greed, abolishing poverty, and generally improving the lot of mankind.

Many Demands

That all this could be done by “using the government as it ought to be used” they never doubted. That others were intent on “using” the government for different and often opposing ends did not deter them. The idea was strong and constant in the Washington of that era. I once heard one of their number, who happened also to be a noted labor leader, express the same idea with respect to his program. “I look upon government,” he said, “simply as a mechanism for getting things done.” While he was generally sympathetic to the wide-ranging program of the New Dealers, the things he especially wanted to get done by force of governmental action were primarily pieces of legislation that favored the aspirations of union leaders. And he was not alone in his self-centered “use” of government. There were others in Washington who wanted to use the government as they thought it ought to be used —namely, for their own interest and benefit and that of their friends or constituents. They included representatives of particular lines of business or industry, various trade associations, community development federations, certain kinds of state and regional organizations—a small army of special pleaders, as there always had been. But for the time being the administration forces were in control. Because of a kind of nationwide intellectual paralysis, they had first call on the “use” of government.

And so the country entered the long period of political and economic tinkering that came to be known as the New Deal in capital letters — so named because of a poker player’s phrase in the acceptance speech of their Presidential nominee, in which he called for a “new deal” for the American people.

The New Deal By Men of “Vision”

Soon Washington was thronged with those who were intent on “saving the country.” Many of them, like my old friend, were also concerned, as they expressed it, with making America “great” — a purpose that ignored the fact that our country was already great, very great indeed, in the eyes of the whole world, and in the fervent belief of most Americans. Experts crowded the corridors—economists, sociologists, specialists on urban problems, ditto on rural conditions, financial analysts, tax counselors, market men — you name it.

The Academy, especially, was heavily represented. Theory was at a premium; experience was discounted. Men of experience, it was alleged, had “got us into this mess.” It was up to men of theory and academic standing (and of course “social vision”) to get us out of it. New ideas were, indeed, welcomed, as my old friend asserted, though most of them turned out to be not new at all, but very old. Most anybody could get a hearing, especially if he had something radical to propose. Very shortly, beginning with the famed One Hundred Days, a spate of legislation was ground out by a Congress that had virtually abdicated its power to originate law. Some of it was regulatory legislation that was long overdue. Much of it was costly experimental tinkering. There was an Act to help Agriculture. Quite simply, it subsidized farm operations at the expense of the rest of society, with the two basic provisions that the government would guarantee the farmers a certain price for their produce, and that it would actually pay them for holding a portion of their land out of cultivation in order to create artificial shortages and keep up prices. Perhaps the climactic absurdity was reached when farmers were required to kill a certain percentage of their little pigs, or plow under a specified number of cotton rows.

(Quite recently we have witnessed a throwback to those days in the spectacle of poultry raisers destroying thousands of baby chicks because a governmentally controlled grain market and ceilings on retail prices made it impossible to bring the chicks to table size without actual loss to the grower.)

There was also an industrial recovery Act, so called. It was supposed to restore health to a faltering economy. Among other measures it provided a program under which people engaged in the same line of business or industry could organize under government sanction, and by the adoption of what were called “Codes” could agree on prices, credit, production and other matters, all in defiance of long-established law, and certainly in contravention of the public interest.

To catalogue and examine all that was undertaken would fill a book. Indeed, it has filled many books already. Some of it has gone by the board because it was declared unconstitutional. Some of it has been merged into later programs. But much remains, notably parts of the farm subsidy program, and an elaborate system of old age pensions and medical benefits. These latter have survived and been expanded under the semantically “good” name of Social Security.

It is not my purpose to attempt a detailed analysis of all this vast program. Two points, however, should be made: First, that this was not the first time (nor will it, in all probability, be the last) that men have “used government as they thought it ought to be used.” And second, that such well-meant efforts result in the creation of self-perpetuating bureaucracies, and in keeping expensive and restrictive programs going long after the need for them, real or fancied, is past, or their failure has been demonstrated.

Some Ancient Recipes

As for newness or modernity, the “codification” of industry is at least as old as the European Guild system of the Middle Ages. The compulsory old-age pension system was instituted in Prussia by Bismarck about a hundred years ago, but the idea was not new, even then. And controlling or attempting to control agricultural production and prices by the destruction of growing crops goes back at least as far as the Roman Emperor Domitian during the first century after Christ.

As for bureaucratic self-perpetuation, Washington is full (and so, I suppose, are most State capitals) of agencies whose original purpose has been well-nigh forgotten. But try to get one of them discontinued! Woe betide the conscientious official who would attempt such sacrilege! At once an indignant howl ascends to heaven. A pressure group is formed, clear back to the grass roots. Congressmen are besieged with letters, telegrams, phone calls and delegations. The heat is applied to their important supporters back home. The deprivation syndrome also comes into play. If the bureau was originally started to provide some sort of “benefit” (financial or otherwise) to segments of the population, then no matter how wasteful, inefficient, or no-longer-needed it may prove to be — hands off! It has become a sacred cow — not only to its scattered beneficiaries, but to its small army of employees. To abolish it would be to deprive worthy people of their rights, and their employment. Shame on you for trying to do such a cruel thing!

And this sort of reaction is not limited to small-fry recipients of governmental aid or employment. It is practiced equally by the scheming housewife who skips from job to job in order to collect so-called unemployment benefits during the idle periods, and the big corporation executive who uses more sophisticated methods of seeing to it that his company retains its full share of the Washington favors. Colleges, universities, states, regions, big business, little business, labor, merchants, bankers, manufacturers, teachers —powerful and influential sections of the society are equally vocal, energetic, resourceful and persuasive in protecting their slice of the Federal pie. They are convinced and dedicated disciples of using the government — as they think it ought to be used.

A Social Disease

So much for what may be called the pragmatic or practical or bread-and-butter aspects of “using” the government. But the matter goes far deeper. These attitudes are surface things — symptoms of the inner malaise that can affect a government and its people when it has ceased to be a government and become a mere collection and disbursement agency for the enhancement of privilege and the distribution of largesse. When such a state is reached, the government, if it survives at all, emerges either as a tyranny or as a collectivist regime. In either case, the general economy ultimately stagnates, initiative is stifled, and freedom, as men have known it and died for it, perishes. In either case, it is a dream gone bankrupt.

What, after all, is government? It is a device created or evolved by men to protect them in their inherent or acquired rights, and to insure their liberty. A good statement of the purpose of any government in an advanced stage of society is to be found in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. “To form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” In a more primitive society it might have been expressed in simpler terms: “We must organize to keep our several jealous tribes in order, see that everybody gets a fair deal in his relations with others, take care that criminally-minded people can’t rob us and destroy our property, have some men specially trained to repel our enemies if they attack us, see to it that everybody has a fair chance to make a living and get ahead in the world, and fix things so that our children will be free.”

In post-Colonial America more than a decade of experience and experiment had demonstrated the need for a strong central government. The old Articles of Confederation simply would not suffice. Thirteen separate, jealous, and often mutually antagonistic States loosely federated was not the answer to the question of American survival. The problem was, how to attain the degree of unification that would insure stability and freedom without getting caught in the toils of a centralism that would invite tyranny. Hence the long thirteen years of delay; hence the protracted debate; hence the elaborate precautions against concentrated power; hence the three great divisions of government; hence the so-called checks and balances.

There was a notable intellectual content in the political leadership of that time. They were well grounded in a kind of empirical idealism. Those who hammered out the Constitution were men of education and vision, heavily seasoned with uncommon common sense. To think of them as untutored colonials is to misunderstand completely the kind of life and experience that had molded them. Most of them were highly sophisticated, well educated men, thoroughly grounded in Latin and Greek, careful students of classical literature, and especially familiar with the writings of such philosophers as the Baron Charles de Montesquieu and John Locke, and such legal savants as the great William Blackstone.

On the Shoulders of Giants

From Blackstone they derived an understanding of the nature and purpose of government and law. From Montesquieu they learned the principle of a separation of governmental powers, remembering that the wise Frenchman, himself a magistrate, had written: “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty.” From Locke they inherited the idea of “natural rights” (which he said consisted of life, liberty and property) and the concept of the “social contract” — i.e., government. From all of them and others, as well as from their own abundant common sense, they had developed the conviction that the state was the servant of the people, and not the other way around. They also were committed to the idea of a duality, or diffusion, of power; and so they were careful to provide for, and reserve certain rights and powers to the governments of the several states. Through all their deliberations and decisions ran a salutary fear of too much, too powerful, and too concentrated government. They were careful, therefore, to hedge each branch of government about with definite restrictions upon the nature and extent of the power it should exercise.

The purpose was to provide the authority and strength needed to protect the nation against aggression from without, to guard against civil disorders within, and to make citizens secure in their civil and property rights. And the ideal constantly aimed at was to do this with the minimum of machinery — in short, to avoid the burden, and the danger, of too much government.

So what happened? Perhaps the best answer to that question is to be found in one simple but appalling statistic: The number of civilians now employed by our government is TWO MILLION, EIGHT HUNDRED AND NINETEEN THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED AND SIXTY ONE!

I have put the word “civilian” in italics to emphasize that we are not now talking about soldiers, sailors, marines and air force personnel. They are something else, and a problem in themselves. We are here considering only those employees who are hired to run the innumerable departments, bureaus, commissions, committees, boards and other agencies that have resulted from the determination of the American people to “use” the government.

The Executive Branch

This fantastic bureaucratic army, it should be noted, is almost entirely attached to the Executive branch of the government — naturally enough, because that is where the action is. The Legislative branch merely orders things done by passing a law and voting an appropriation. The Judicial branch merely says whether you can or can’t do it under the Constitution.

It is up to the Executive, or Administrative, branch to do the job. And so we find that the Legislative branch (both houses of Congress) employs only 33,688 people aside from Congressmen and Senators. The Judicial branch is still more modest in its demands for help. It employs a relatively insignificant army of only 8,243. (Only! That slight quake you felt just then was John Marshall turning over in his grave.) So that leaves the snug little total for the Executive branch of 2,769,848 employees.

In any overview of the government one starts out, of course, with the great Departments, such as State, Defense, Commerce, Justice and the rest, numbering now eleven, with Defense being actually a kind of umbrella department covering the operations of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Each Department has its duties, defined by law originally and enlarged by the zeal and ingenuity of its devoted bureaucrats. (And this is not said critically of them. Many are devoted public servants, doing the job expected of them; but they would be less than human if they did not work to expand the area of action in which their lot is cast.) The names of these great Departments indicate generally the job each was created to do: Commerce — obvious; Labor — ditto; Treasury — our finances; and so on.

But then we come to the so-called Independent Agencies. These have been set up from time to time, occasionally to meet a recognizable need, often as a result of pressure-group activities. They are all, of course, lodged in the Executive branch. What are they? I can’t possibly even list them in an article of this compass; and besides, if I did you probably wouldn’t believe me! I suggest, instead, that you get a copy of the United States Government Organization Manual for 1972-73. It is published by the government itself and is available for $3.00 from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington. It is a well organized documentation; and it has 710 pages; so in sheer bulk you will get your money’s worth.

The section on Independent Agencies begins on page 372 and runs through page 538— 166 pages of rather small type just to name and describe these Agencies, of which there are now 61. One of them is the General Services Administration, whose job is to provide a system for the management of government property and records, including the construction and operation of buildings, procurement and distribution of supplies, utilization and disposal of property, stockpiling of strategic materials, and so on. In addition to its Washington establishment, it has ten regional offices and operates Information Centers in 35 cities; and it requires five pages of the book just to list the Administrators, Deputy Administrators, Directors of Projects, and other officials.

So what? Is this written to belittle or discredit the General Services? Not at all. For all I know it is manned by very fine men and women. So far as I am aware, it is a necessary agency, in view of all those Federal buildings and other property. Given the existing set-up, it probably could not be dispensed with. And if that be true, it simply serves to support the theme and purpose of this article, which is not to attack agencies or individuals, but to point out the size, complexity and enormous cost that have resulted from the determination of people to “use the government as they believe it ought to be used.”

A Case in Point

On my desk as I write is a recent issue of my home town newspaper. In the “Letters” section, Mr. Brent Hall, Athletic Director of one of our high schools, writes: “I am angry and more than a little scared.” Why? Well, he says he is angry “because the U. S. Senate will soon vote on S-2365, a bill which, if passed, would create a Federal Board with practically unlimited power over high school and college athletics.”

He goes on to assert that high school and college athletics are two of the most self-policed and regulated institutions in our society, and he adds: “It is a crime that our political system has become so overloaded with people who think they know what is best for society without consulting those whom they wish to regulate. The whole point of competition in a free society is that it is by choice and not by edict of government.” He is scared, he adds, because he fears the Bill may pass by default.

His fear and his anger are both justified; but he should not have been surprised — and I am sure he was not. An effort to put high school and college athletics under Federal control and regulation is a logical extension of what has been going on in other areas for many years. I have not seen the Senate Bill in question, and can only guess at all its provisions; but if it passes we can be sure of two things: First, the Washington Bureaucracy will be enlarged to include another Bureau or Agency or Commission. Just how big it will be is anybody’s guess; but there are over 2600 colleges in this country, and about 14,700 high schools with athletic activities; so with some 17,300 athletic programs to monitor and direct, an extensive and costly Bureau will be required. But second, and more important, volunteerism, the principle of local self-regulation, will have been dealt another blow. And the blow will have been administered at the vulnerable high school and college level, where the minds and attitudes of young people are being formed.

Good Intentions

It is a merry whirl, but a disastrous one, this business of “using” the government. And perhaps its grimmest irony is that it is seldom evil in purpose. On the contrary, it usually springs from good social and humanitarian motives. The intent is not to weaken or destroy the government, but to help some element of society — the poor, the handicapped, the under-educated; the small industry so it can thrive and get to be large; the large industry so it can meet foreign competition, pay dividends, and furnish employment; young people so they may have a better chance in life; old people so they may face age without penury; farmers so they may be on a par with other industry; education so people may better cope with life… and so on and on. Nobody wants to injure the government. They just want to “use” it — for the greater glory.

And so, in addition to the 11 great Departments, we have the 61 Independent Agencies and 70 Selected Boards, Committees and Commissions. And at latest count, and not including the Armed Services, we have, as we have seen, nearly three million people working in those departments and agencies. When you add to these the number of people working for State and local governments, include those in the armed services, and count in the more than thirty-one million who are now on Social Security, we find that there are in round numbers sixty-two million Americans who are now receiving regular monthly checks from government.

One result of all this is that for years now we have had annual budget deficits of from ten to twenty billion dollars; that our national debt has been swollen to over $400 billion; that nobody in authority has made any serious effort to pay anything on that debt; and that inevitably we have experienced a constant and ruinous destruction of the value of our money. Not only has this created an intolerable living-cost burden for the average citizen; on the international plane it has weakened the prestige and influence of our country among the powers of the world. 

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.