Turns Out the Elites Like the Administrative State Better than Democracy
If there is a mantra among progressive American political and media elites, it would be “our democracy,” usually preceded by what they believe to be a threat from the Right. For example, progressives deemed the recent reversal of Roe “a threat to our democracy” because it removed laws regulating abortion from Supreme Court jurisdiction and returned the issue to democratically elected legislatures.
It would seem inconsistent to invoke the democratic electoral process to deal with a contentious issue like abortion, but progressives are nothing if not inconsistent. But even in challenging logic on political issues, progressives at least try to stick to the language of democracy, and especially the language of “our democracy.”
However, occasionally progressive elites demonstrate their contempt for democracy because they realize that the democratic process is not going to have the desired progressive results because voters and their representatives do not want to knowingly harm themselves.
Recently, the New York Times, in a progressive moment of truth, reacted to the US Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA, in which the court ruled that because carbon dioxide is not among the pollutants regulated by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the Environmental Protection Agency could not enforce CO2 emissions rules for electric power plants.
In its 6–3 ruling, the SCOTUS indicated that Congress was free to pass legislation to regulate carbon dioxide but that the EPA was not free to simply add it to its list of regulated power plant emissions on its own. In other words, the high court declared that democratically elected members of the US House and Senate are free to write (and pass) any anti–climate change legislation they choose. This is what the ancients once called democracy.
Not surprisingly, the NYT went ballistic, and in so doing exposed the progressive mentality, with its affinity for rule by “experts.” Declared the newspaper’s editorial board:
Thursday’s ruling also has consequences far beyond environmental regulation. It threatens the ability of federal agencies to issue rules of any kind, including the regulations that ensure the safety of food, medicines and other consumer products, that protect workers from injuries and that prevent financial panics.
The ruling did no such thing. Instead, the court said that federal regulatory agencies are not free to create and enforce rules outside of their statutory authority. The EPA had simply declared itself the official power plant CO2 emissions regulator under the Obama administration despite the fact that Democrats had a supermajority in the US Senate and a huge majority in the House and theoretically could have passed a law giving new regulatory powers to the EPA. That Congress did not do so is instructive.
In other words, this was an extralegal power grab but one approved by elites because, well, elites know more than everyone else. The NYT editorial continued:
In 1984, an earlier generation of conservative Supreme Court justices formalized a doctrine of deference to the judgment of regulatory agencies, modestly concluding that judges were neither experts nor elected officials, and therefore ought to leave such decisions in other hands. In Thursday’s decision, the court asserted that the policy of deference applies only to supposedly unimportant regulations. When it comes to “major questions” of regulatory policy, the court said, it would not hesitate to second-guess regulators—and to strike rules that it decided did not have a clear congressional warrant.
The decision amounts to a warning shot across the bow of the administrative state. The court’s current conservative majority, engaged in a counterrevolution against the norms of American society, is seeking to curtail the efforts of federal regulators to protect the public’s health and safety. The court already invoked a similar logic during the Covid pandemic to strike down workplace Covid testing requirements and a federal moratorium on evictions. And by refraining from defining a threshold for what constitutes a “major question,” the court is leaving a sword hanging over every new rule. (emphasis mine)
The “administrative state,” of course, is anything but democratic; it is autocratic to the core. For all of their professed love for democracy, progressives have long demanded rule by experts, or at least rule by “experts” that meet progressive approval. As I pointed out last year, when actual scientists studied the effects of so-called acid rain and concluded that it was not causing lake and river acidification, progressives in the media, as well as EPA administrators, immediately tried to destroy the careers of scientists failing to echo the party line. Not surprisingly, one of the loudest antiscience voices in the acid rain affair was the New York Times.
Furthermore, for all the “experts know best” rhetoric in the NYT editorial, there is no proof that the administrative state governs as effectively as democracy, which elites pretend to love. The “experts” at the Federal Reserve believed they could substitute trillions of printed dollars for actual production of goods without creating monetary chaos. In western forests, the “experts” at the US Forest Service have had fire suppression policies in place for more than a century, and the result has been that what were once mere forest fires have become destructive conflagrations that burn so hot that they often destroy the scorched soil’s ability to generate postfire growth.
The ”experts” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed policies that precipitated massive job losses, caused unnecessary premature death from ailments other than covid-19, and still failed to promote adequate information about the virus and its origins. Education “experts” have created one educational crisis after another, and so on. Rule by experts—the administrative state—has caused destruction whenever it is invoked, yet the editors at the “newspaper of record” have failed to notice.
Instead, they proclaim eternal fealty to what only can be called a failed experiment in governance, not to mention that it is antidemocratic. Yet, the NYT editors cannot keep from claiming loyalty to both forms of governance, even when they contradict one another:
Congress has decided, and with good reason, that regulatory agencies staffed by experts are the best available mechanism for a representative democracy to make decisions in areas of technical complexity. The E.P.A. is the entity that Congress relies upon to figure out how clean the air should be, and how to get there. Asserting that it lacks the power to perform its basic responsibilities is simply sabotage.
There is much to dissect in those words, but suffice it to say that to assume that EPA decision makers have the kind of knowledge and expertise implied in that editorial is to foolishly demonstrate faith in something that inevitably fails. Far from being near-omniscient sages of science, the bureaucrats making life-altering decisions at the EPA are people who bear no costs if they impose unnecessary burdens on the lives of ordinary people but who also find that the more draconian their edicts, the greater the praise from environmental interest groups and, of course, the New York Times. What possibly could go wrong?