Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Push the Pencil, Save the World

As a bureaucrat who was quite literally pushing a pencil a few minutes ago (it was rolling off my desk), and having studied federal bureaucrats who helped win World War II, I enjoyed Christopher Hayes's piece in The Nation praising federal bureaucrats' efforts to stem the flood of incompetence and idiocy that issues from the Bush Administration.

It was the midlevel intelligence professionals in the CIA whose expertise led them to argue that Iraq had no means of acquiring nuclear material; it was the planners and country experts at the State Department who prepared a 1,200-page document about postwar Iraq outlining in depressing detail the many challenges and brutalizing exigencies our occupying forces now face. It was professional scientists in the bowels of the Environmental Protection Agency who pushed their reports warning of the effects of climate change, only to have them censored and purged. It was concerned and conscientious spooks and cryptographers at the National Security Agency who contacted reporters to raise alarms about the warrantless wiretapping of Americans. It was a midlevel career bureaucrat at the Department of Education named Jon Oberg who spent his own time--nights and weekends--studying the student loan program and discovered that taxpayers were being ripped off by private lenders to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite warnings from his (appointed) superiors, he published his results in an internal memo sent to the entire department. He retired shortly thereafter.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the virtue of bureaucracy came during the recent revelations of James Comey's late-night confrontation with the President's henchmen in the hospital room of the drugged and groggy Attorney General John Ashcroft...

The moral of the Comey story specifically, and of the failures of the Bush Administration more broadly, is the sublime value of bureaucracy. Not only is governance of any kind impossible without it; so too are the checks and balances of a constitutional republic. Red tape is what binds those in power to the mast of the law, what stands in the way of government by whim. That's why an Administration hostile to any checks and balances has sought to reconstitute the federal civil service as just another lever in its machine.
Via Economist's View.