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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Revolutions and Government Institutions

The bureaucracy wins.

Republicans are fond of referring to the “Reagan Revolution” of the early 1980s, when in fact it was no revolution at all. I would go as far as to say that the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 were not revolutions in the sense that the institutions of government changed radically in those countries; at best, they were coups d’état.

For all the euphoria over the people-driven revolution in Egypt, as I see it, whatever regime emerges will in the end carry on business as usual, even if the players change. Government institutions are powerful things, and government itself always seems to come out on top.

In Iran the secular government was replaced by people loyal to the religious leaders who sought to create an Islamic state. It might have been called a revolution, but all that happened was that a new set of strongmen seized the existing governing apparatus and made it their own.

Iranians supposedly revolted in part because they were abused by the Shah’s government and many were tortured or killed by the secret police, SAVAK. Was SAVAK eliminated after the “revolution”? Hardly.  The people directing the secret police simply wore religious garb rather than coats and ties, but the job was the same: to root out and destroy “enemies” of the current regime. For that matter, the secret police of Czar Nicholas II morphed into the Cheka after the October Revolution.

The seeming imperviousness of government institutions is not limited to the State security apparatus. All kinds of government agencies have a knack for outlasting the political figures who supposedly govern them. Take the so-called Reagan Revolution for example.

Department Remained

Ronald Reagan allegedly went to Washington to cut government spending, and in his view that meant abolishing the newly created departments of education and energy. Not only did those two departments outlast Reagan, but when he left office in 1989, the machinery to create a cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs had been set in motion. (It opened in March 1989.)

One can criticize Reagan (and rightly so) for not sticking to his stated principles, but I contend that even had Reagan been utterly sincere and determined to cut federal spending, it would have been nearly politically impossible for him to do it. Why? Because the government consists of numerous departments, agencies, and employees with a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

Furthermore, millions of people in the “private sector” feed at the government trough, and real budget cutters face their wrath, not to mention opposition from those who intellectually support the “statist” quo. I remember watching the news shows in 1981 that were filled with angst because Reagan had proffered very small cuts in federal spending, and journalists such as Bill Moyers and Charles Kuralt excoriated the President, claiming he was conducting “a war on the poor.”

The United States no longer is a constitutional republic; it is a Progressive democracy, and its governmental institutions reflect the Progressivist vision. Accordingly, it will be difficult to change it, although we have to try.

As for the Egyptians, I hope they succeed in dumping the dictatorship. But I’m afraid we are going to see little more than the rise of someone else who learns how to use the existing levers of power. He might not be as ruthless or dishonest as Mubarak, but over time he will learn the standard ways of “governing.”


  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.