Don't mess with success, says Constitution scholar
`WHEN I think of bureaucracy,'' says historian Forrest McDonald in the remnants of a Texas drawl, ``I think of Mark Twain's definition thereof. Bureaucracy, said he, is 50,000 ants on a log floating down the Mississippi River - and every one of them thinking they're running it!'' His feet on the coffee table, his spare frame lounging in an easy chair during breakfast in his hotel suite, the University of Alabama professor chuckles over Twain's analogy. He uses it, however, to make a serious point learned from decades of study of the American Constitution: that the real threat to capitalism, of which he is a vigorous advocate, is not communism or socialism, but bureaucracy.Skip to next paragraph
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The paralysis that accompanies the spread of ``what we call bureaucratization - all the Peter Principles and the Parkinson's laws and so on - obviously has happened,'' says the man who delivered the 1987 Jefferson Lecture (the nation's highest honor in the humanities) to a packed and attentive audience May 6 in the soaring Great Hall of the National Building Museum here.
``When I think in those terms,'' he adds, ``I get pretty pessimistic.'' The nation's government seems to be ``locked in institutionally in ways that we can't get out of.''
``But there's another part of me that has enormous faith in the human animal, and enormous faith in the good side of the law of unintended consequences,'' he says. A believer in the fact that ``the market prevails'' and that ``things work themselves out,'' he has little use for governmental planning. ``If you try to plan [the economy], the extent to which you succeed in planning it out is the extent to which you muck up - because it is so much more complicated than anybody allows for!''
And that faith leads him to a most surprising conclusion: that the very paralysis of large bureaucracies may, in fact, be the salvation of the nation. ``Those who want to tinker with the Constitution,'' he notes, ``are thinking in terms of making the government of the United States more effective, more efficient, less wasteful, less a totally deadlocked mess, and so on.''
``It could be done: You could fix it so that it would work,'' he adds. But ``if it worked,'' he says, dropping his voice to an emphatic whisper, ``it would be devastating! It would so restrict the operations of the spontaneous market that it really would interfere in a very deadly fashion.''
McDonald, an authority on America's early national period (his 16 books include studies of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, as well as ``Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution,'' one of three finalists for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in History), gravitates toward 18th-century examples to illuminate 20th-century problems. One of the forces that brought the Constitution into being, he notes, was the fact that the state governments did work efficiently.
And how did they use their efficiency? In ``oppressing American citizens under a burden of taxation'' that during the 1780s was ``10 to 20 times prewar norms,'' he told his lecture audience, and by imposing an intrusive regulatory superstructure.
``The vast majority of the framers [of the Constitution],'' he added, ``viewed the crisis of 1787 as having arisen from an excess of state government, a wanton and inept use of all governmental power, and a collapse of authority resulting from efforts to govern overmuch.''
It is that sobering example that leads McDonald to his views on bureaucracy - which, he admits between bites of Danish pastry, he espouses ``partly facetiously.''
``I'm not a libertarian, and I'm not a Jeffersonian,'' he explains, separating himself from theories that call for a radical weakening of central government. ``There are certain things about the national government which I think ought to be done and done well - like defending this country. The military is a legitimate function of the national government, and the better it works, the better we are.
``But on the other hand, given everything, it's better that [government] doesn't work.''
Bringing those views to bear on contemporary problems, he cites the international trade deficit. ``Everybody's all hot and bothered'' about the fact that the United States is ``importing more than we're exporting.'' So they call for more government control of the private sector.
``This is so shortsighted,'' he says. In nearly every year of the 19th century, ``we imported far more than we exported. We would buy mainly from Britain, and so we'd send them cotton and they'd send us manufactured goods. And we'd rack up deficit after deficit after deficit.
``How was the balance of payments rectified? They get pieces of paper - in the form of United States government debt, corporate debt, private debt, shares in corporations,'' he says. But every 20 years or so, along came a financial panic in which ``values collapsed and crashed.'' So ``all these pieces of paper that the Brits own become worthless pieces of paper, and they start all over again. But they're providing the capital for America's tremendous, awesome, unprecedented economic growth in the 19th century.''