President Obama is accountable for the IRS, State Department and Justice Department. His longtime adviser David Axelrod last week blamed a too-big government for the scandals: "Part of being president is that there's so much beneath you that you can't know because the government is so vast."Why the commentariat is discovering this phenomenon only now comes as a bit of a surprise. Readers with long memories might remember the conglomerate firms of the mid-to-late 1960s. The conceit in those years was that Scientific Management with Harvard Business School degrees could create additional value in stodgy companies. It didn't matter much what those companies did, because Management by Objectives or whatever the business fad of the era was would enhance productivity.
Messrs. Obama and Axelrod helped create that problem, but the argument against big government rings especially true in an era when not even the government can control information.
The buzzwords stay the same, although the failure of conglomeration could not be laid off on the absence of presentation software, smart 'phones, or the Black-Scholes formula. Our political masters in Washington have all those things, and they're coming undone. Here's Daniel Henninger, also in Wall Street Journal, extending Mr. Crovitz:
[B]ack to David Axelrod. It behooves us to focus on the implication in his assertion that the government has become too vast for a mere U.S. president to bear responsibility. This may be the most significant Freudian slip in 50 years.Yes, imagine Penn Central's Stuart Saunders or LTV's James Ling or Litton's Charles Litton conceding that the expertise involved in running a railroad or a control systems company didn't generalize to charter aircraft leasing or a shipyard or an office equipment factory. (Among my examples there are railroads getting into electronics, electronics getting into railroads, and promoters getting into trouble.)
Barack Obama was the president who on entering the White House promised an era of "smart government." It was Barack Obama who told graduates at Ohio State that the government is good. In that light, the Axelrod admission is historic. Historic because it was during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency that liberal policy makers and intellectuals promised good government forever via something called the administrative state—in which dedicated bureaucrats would carry out benevolent public policies designed by smart social scientists.
If there are limits to the administrative state, if even High Government Officials have to think through the implications of spans of control, that must be to the good. It's particularly newsworthy when Georgetown's Jonathan Turley, more frequently heard supporting the Eastern Establishment on MSNBC, sees administrative bloat. "Our carefully constructed system of checks and balances is being negated by the rise of a fourth branch, an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency." His elaboration notes that expense-preference behavior isn't just for university athletics departments and executive vice-presidents any more.
The rise of the fourth branch has occurred alongside an unprecedented increase in presidential powers — from the power to determine when to go to war to the power to decide when it’s reasonable to vaporize a U.S. citizen in a drone strike. In this new order, information is jealously guarded and transparency has declined sharply. That trend, in turn, has given the fourth branch even greater insularity and independence. When Congress tries to respond to cases of agency abuse, it often finds officials walled off by claims of expanding executive privilege.Perhaps, though, Professor Turley pulls his punches for fear of losing his MSNBC gigs by drawing a stronger conclusion. "We cannot long protect liberty if our leaders continue to act like mere bystanders to the work of government."
He is, however, making a case for taking seriously the notion of enumerated and limited powers for government. The commentariat might be able to marginalize invocations of British Regulars invading houses, imposing arbitrary taxes, and confiscating weapons. It's going to be less easy for those court intellectuals to marginalize invocations of self-serving government officials acting in something other than The Public Interest.