Interview with Paul Tucker by Benedict King: “In your book, you place what you call the “administrative state” at the heart of the political dilemmas facing the liberal political order. Could you tell us what you mean by ‘the administrative state’ and the dilemmas it poses for democratic societies?
This is about the legitimacy of the structure of government that has developed in Western democracies. The ‘administrative state’ is simply the machinery for implementing policy and law. What matters is that much of it—including many regulators and central banks—is no longer under direct ministerial control. They are not part of a ministerial department. They are not answerable day-to-day, minute-by-minute to the prime minister or, in other countries, the president.
When I was young, in Europe at least, these arm’s-length agencies were a small part of government, but now they are a very big part. Over here, that transformation has come about over the past thirty-odd years, since the 1990s, whereas in America it goes back to the 1880s, and especially the 1930s New Deal reforms of President Roosevelt.
“The ‘administrative state’ is simply the machinery for implementing policy and law. ”
In the United Kingdom we used to call these agencies ‘quangos’, but that acronym trivialises the issue. Today, many—in the US, probably most—of the laws to which businesses and even individuals are subject are written and enforced by regulatory agencies, part of the administrative state, rather than passed by Parliament or Congress and enforced by the elected executive. That would surprise John Locke, Montesquieu and James Madison, who developed the principles associated with the separation of powers and constitutionalism.
To some extent, these changes were driven by a perceived need to turn to ‘expertise’. But the effect has been to shift more of our government away from our elected representatives and to unelected technocrats. An underlying premise at the heart of my book (although not something that I can prove) is that, since any and every part of government eventually fails—and may fail very badly, as we saw with the collapse of the financial system in 2008—there is a risk that people will get fed up with this shift to governance by unelected experts. The people will get fed up with their lives being affected so much by people who they didn’t have a chance to vote for and can’t vote out. If that happened, it would be dangerous as the genius of representative democracy is that it separates how we as citizens feel about the system of government from how we feel about the government of the day. So how can we avoid that without losing the benefits of delegation? That is what the debate about the administrative state is ultimately about: its dryness belies its importance to how we govern ourselves.
“The genius of representative democracy is that it separates how we as citizens feel about the system of government from how we feel about the government of the day”
It matters, therefore, that the array of agencies in the administrative state varies enormously in the degree to which they are formally insulated from politics. My book Unelected Power is about ‘independent agencies’, by which I mean an agency that is insulated day-to-day from both the legislative branch (Parliament or Congress) and also from the executive branch of government (the prime minister or president). Central banks are the most important example of such independent agencies in modern times, wielding a wide range of monetary and regulatory powers….(More + selection of five books to read)”.