Book Review: Bring Back the Bureaucrats by John DiIulio

The following is a revised, truncated excerpt from a book review assignment I did for a college course. Because I was not trying to be lazy and simply copy and paste I have changed a few things as well as shortened it for this post. Hopefully you enjoy…

In the book Bring Back the Bureaucrats:Why More Federal Workers Will Lead to Better (and Smaller!) Government author John DiIulio aims to resolve the problem of inefficient, and ineffective, government. The book seeks to highlight certain issues within the day to day operation of the government and provide historical context for how we, as a nation, have come to this point. Additionally, the author offers up solutions to these issues in the form of his general ideas for a path forward. Or at least, that is his intention.

 In any debate the basic building block is how you frame the debate. Or, to put it another way, the effectiveness of any argument depends upon the premise. For Mr. DiIulio, the basic premise of his argument is that the Federal government is ineffective, inefficient and in desperate need of repair as a direct result of a lack of bureaucrats. He begins the book with a basic framework from which to develop this premise, going into great detail to highlight various wastes and inefficiencies within the Federal government. He details the growth of the scope of government over time, in addition to the growth of government spending. In order to further drive home these points, he contrasts this growth with the lack of increase in government employees over the same timeframe. 

Beginning with the 1960s, Mr. DiIulio leaves very little undisturbed when it comes to government. He discusses in great detail the increases in spending, stating that from 1960 to 1975 federal government spending doubled in dollars[1]and then did so again from 1975 to 2005.[2]However, the problem here for Mr. DiIulio is not that the spending was increased, the problem is instead that the federal workforce was not. This increase in spending without an increase in the federal workforce leads to what Mr. DiIulio calls “Leviathan by Proxy”.[3]

This is the crux of Mr. DiIulio’s argument, that since the Leviathan of government cannot be tamed, the proxy system that has arisen is doing a disservice to all Americans. Because this proxy system is woefully inadequate we must therefore bring back the bureaucrats. The author cites examples of the work shifting from Federal employees to nonprofit organizations, for-profit contractors, and state and local government proxies. He laments this shift because of how the proxies have come to function. Citing that they are operating on federal funds in the way of grants, grants for aid, and contract competition. He remarks that “big government in drag dressed as state or local government, private enterprise or civil society is still big government”.[4]

While Mr. DiIulio certainly makes a valid point about big government in that regard, it is here where his argument as a whole begins to unravel. It would appear from his argument, as well as his proposed solutions, that the issue for Mr. DiIulio is not that government has become Leviathan but rather that it is done by proxy. It seems that the author is perfectly fine with ditching the “by proxy” in favor of Leviathan. Indeed, he seems to think that not only is the big government Leviathan acceptable but preferable. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to explain how if we only knew how government would end up growing that we would have been better off accepting the big government plan in the beginning.[5]

Therein lies the problem, this is a flawed premise. It is illogical to think that efforts to reduce the size and scope of government are somehow responsible for the growth of government. Because the government now shifts from the federal level to the state and local level (in certain cases) and uses non and for-profit contracting does not in and of itself mean it is responsible for the government having grown. The big government programs still exist and as such these are merely efforts for government to get around the limits and restrictions that those of us who favor smaller government try to put on it. 

The issue is the big government not the by proxy. Mr. DiIulio’s entire argument is based around what amounts to an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Since government always tries to grow, we should just accept it and allow it to grow rather than put in restrictions. But this too is another flawed premise. In arguing in favor of ridding the “by proxy” in favor of Leviathan, the author never actually gives a reason as to why this approach is better. His argument amounts to “it’s happening anyway, so we may as well revert it all back to federal bureaucrats”. Absent from the pages of this book is any coherent reason as to why federal bureaucrats would be better than private enterprises or even state and local proxies. In fact, the latter should be just as good as a federal bureaucrat given that they are also bureaucrats, just at the state and local level. If bureaucrats truly provide a superior service then a state bureaucrat is just as good as a federal one, is it not? 

Additionally, Mr. DiIulio brings up an important point with regard to federal bureaucrats, albeit a different one than he intended. He points out that the current system “undercuts public administration’s democratic accountability”[6]and to him this is a reason why the system needs to go back to the federal bureaucracy. This argument does not hold water either though, because an unelected bureaucrat is not in any way democratically accountable. There is no reason to think that simply by virtue of reverting the administration of the big government program back to the federal government then that will somehow make the program more accountable to the public. In reality the opposite is often true. It is not uncommon to see that in most cases a lack of accountability is one of the main reasons for inefficiency within bureaucracy.[7]

The role of government should be as minimal as possible. Our founders started with that premise and designed our Constitution to give very specific enumerated powers to the federal government. They knew and understood that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”.[8]Furthermore, to Mr. DiIulio’s point that the increase in federal workers is somehow more beneficial simply because there are more of them I must refer to the words of James Madison: “One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one”[9]

This is the fatal flaw within Mr. DiIulio’s argument, there is nothing about it that lines up with the intent of the founders. While Mr. DiIulio makes some excellent points that the current system is also not keeping with the original intent, that does not in any way justify succumbing to the big government Leviathan. The problem is that the government has grown too large and interferes in every aspect of American life, not that it is interfering inefficiently. The solution to that is not to give us more of the thing we don’t want, the solution is to stop the interference.

I will say the book itself is an interesting read given the level of detail that the author goes into with regard to spending and government programs. Also, there is a section at the end containing rebuttals to his arguments from two sources who are on opposite ends of the spectrum from each other. He includes these in an attempt to refute them, however, from my perspective he never actually addresses their concerns.

All in all, the book was enough to keep me reading, if only because of the fascinating mental gymnastics required to arrive at some of his conclusions. In the end, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading this book unless you have some free time that you want to spend annoyed. But even then, there are surely better ways to annoy yourself.

[1]. John DiIulio. Bring Back the Bureaucrats Why More Federal Workers Will Lead to Better (and Cheaper!) Government. Templeton Press, 2014. P. 14

[2]. Ibid

[3]. Ibid. P. 6 

[4]. Ibid. P. 42 

[5]. Ibid. P. 79-89 

[6]. Ibid. P. 7 

[7]. Ronald N. Johnson, Gary D. Libecap. TheProblem of Bureaucracy. University of Chicago Press. 1994. P. 2

[8]. Ronald Reagan. “Inaugural Address.” Address, January 20, 1981.

[9]. James Madison. Federalist 48. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA), 2005.

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