The Fourth of July is marked by Americans all across the country celebrating our nation’s independence with fireworks displays and backyard barbecues. And yet, in the 240 years since we declared our independence from Great Britain, we have slowly built up a government bureaucracy that limits the very freedom we celebrate each year.
As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, reminding Americans to be just as wary of our own government as we were of the British crown, from which we gave up so much to be separate:
“When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”
The absence of self-governance was precisely what ignited a revolution in the American colonies. It wasn’t the taxation of tea that caused colonial outrage; it was the fact that the favored British company, the East India Company, got a tax break.
Americans feel disconnected from the decisions made within the confines of the Washington beltway. Most people (three out of four) express this fragmentation by responding negatively to the question of whether the government is on “the right track.” Jefferson, while not anticipating the specific rise of hundreds of bureaucracies populated by hundreds of thousands of administrative officials, got it right when he presaged the powerlessness of trying to check such a huge nonelected bureaucratic entity.
It’s important to note that these agencies were originally created with an important purpose — solving problems. But as we’ve gotten away from evidence-based rulemaking, these bureaucracies have exploded, making it impossible for Americans to keep up. Agencies pass 3,000-4,000 new rules every year, far more than any one person could comprehend.
The agencies have become so robust that they operate almost entirely outside the control of the president and Congress. And the last major agency we got rid of was way back in 1978, the Civil Aeronautics Board, while President Jimmy Carter was in office. The last time Congress passed serious legislation to allow the public to gain more control over the bureaucracies was 70 years ago. It’s called the Administrative Procedure Act. It was supposed to make agencies seek comment from the public and then listen to their concerns about proposed regulations.
There is a long history of agencies passing regulations that help some businesses at the expense of consumers, workers and competitors. Sometimes it’s the larger firms employing regulatory attorneys that can interact with the bureaucracy and get them to pass regulations that hurt smaller competitors. Other times it’s the consumer and environmental advocates who rotate in and out of the bureaucracies and have excess influence in convincing the agencies to pass regulations that they’re passionate about. But those regulations too often either don’t help to solve problems or have unintended consequences that they simply don’t care about.
The courts can help oversee agencies, though they’re burdened by a past decision that says when ordinary people challenge how an agency has interpreted a law written by Congress, the courts must “defer to the agencies.”
The checks and balances set forth in our Constitution have long been neutralized by bureaucracies, and they now threaten the fundamental liberties that we fought so hard to obtain. They don’t produce any real products (like tea) that we can toss overboard in protest, and we don’t have a popular vote to get rid of them. What we do have is an elected legislature which — after 70 years of relenting to bureaucratic build-up — needs to take back its powers to check these agencies, restore our liberties and rid us of the red tape.
Richard Williams is the director of the regulatory studies program with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.