Publius on the administrative state

Numbers 47-51 of the Federalist Papers address the separation of powers. They lie at the center of the collected papers and they are important. Taken together, however, they are difficult; they present a challenge to our understanding.

Bill Kristol contributed a superb essay on these particular numbers to Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding, edited by Charles Kesler. I recommend it, but those numbers make good reading all by themselves.

In researching my post “Crisis of the administrative state,” I came across this observation at the top of number 47:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands — the categories would probably be “of a few” and “appointed” — is also the very definition of the administrative state. If Publius is right, he renders a biting judgment against the legitimacy of the evolved form of our government.

Yet if we seek the restoration of limited government, the first task is intellectual. How is it to be understood? Do we still believe in it? What has happened to it? Are monstrosities like Obamacare and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau consistent with it in any sense? If not, what is to be done?

Bowdoin’s Professor Jean Yarbrough has made the basic point in a message to us we have quoted a few times before:

We need an updated online primer in American government and political thought. We all learn about the separation of powers and federalism, but don’t understand that these restraints do not operate in the administrative universe. Indeed, the administrative state was designed to overcome these obstacles. Our mission should be to educate Americans on the real effects of this turn toward administrative regulations and rules.

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