Washington — `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.
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.''
``Now, what's happening in the 1980s? The Japanese are exporting to us a lot more than they're importing from us. We're not in trouble: The Japanese are in trouble, because they're accumulating pieces of paper in precisely the same way the British accumulated pieces of paper in the 19th century.''
Is that, then, a prophecy of a forthcoming financial collapse? Not at all, he says, noting that the ``wipeouts'' in the 19th century were merely ``gratuitous.'' The Japanese investment, in fact, is ``a wonderful, unforeseen solution to a very, very major problem.''
That problem, he says, arose because increasing governmental regulation forced American industry to invest its capital in ``nonproductive'' ways. The result, he says, was that American industry was ``stagnant in the late '70s. As of 1980, I could see no way out.
``But then we get the trade deficit. And all of a sudden the capacity of American business to generate capital is multiplied greatly by the fact of the Japanese pieces of paper. And now we're laying the foundation for a tremendous expansion of American business.''
But won't that debt come due someday? ``No,'' he says bluntly. ``Corporations don't pay off their debts any more than governments pay off their debts: You refinance them when they get mature.'' Why? Because people with money have to keep it working by reinvesting it in the system. ``The wonderful thing about the capitalistic system is that the idle rich are productive,'' since their investments create capital that benefits even ``the very poor.''
That brings McDonald to what he considers ``the most pressing'' issue of the 20th century: the ``welfare trap,'' through which the very poor are made dependent on governmental payments.
Citing the Constitution, he notes that Congress has the power to provide for the ``general Welfare.'' The emphasis here, he says, should be on general rather than specific. The concept of ``taxing me and giving the money to you - transfer payments, we now call them - would have been regarded in the 18th century and throughout the 19th century as one of the vilest forms of tyranny imaginable. It simply was not done.''
Where, then, should the nation turn to solve these problems?
McDonald muses for a moment. ``I don't think I would ever have prophesied that I would ever say this,'' he says. ``But I think the answer is in education.''
``I really do believe that if discipline and dedication could somehow be restored to the teaching profession down at the beginning levels, the transformation of the American character could be just astonishing.''
Update the Constitution? Balderdash!
From the 16th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, titled ``The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers,'' by Forrest McDonald:
It has been suggested by various intellectuals that the best thing Americans could do to commemorate the 200th anniversary of our Constitution would be to rewrite it to reflect the realities of the 20th century. It has been suggested by various jurists that the Supreme Court is, and should be, doing just that. The assumption underlying both notions is that our pool of knowledge and understanding about human nature and political institutions is far more sophisticated than any that could have been available in the simple frontier society of 18th-century America.
This assumption is as presumptuous as it is uninformed. To put it bluntly, it would be impossible in America today to assemble a group of people with anything near the combined experience, learning, and wisdom that the 55 authors of the Constitution took with them to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.... Thirty-five of the delegates had attended college. Just to enter college during the 18th century - which students normally did at the age of 14 or 15 - it was necessary, among other things, to be able to read and translate from the original Latin into English (I quote from the requirements at King's College - now Columbia - which were typical) ``the first three of Tully's Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil's Aeneid,'' and to translate the first 10 chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ``expert in arithmetic'' and to have a ``blameless moral character.'' I ask you, how many Americans today could even get into college, given these requirements?
Moreover ... it would have been easy in America in 1787 to have assembled another five, possibly 10, constitutional conventions that would have matched the actual convention in every way except for the incomparable luster of George Washington. After all, neither Jefferson nor John Adams was in the Great Convention, nor was John Hancock, Noah Webster, Richard Henry Lee, Sam Adams, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush, Fisher Ames, John Taylor or John Jay.... This was America's Golden Age, the likes of which we shall not see again.