ELLIOT: Attacking the bureaucracy

Peter Van Buren, a columnist for Reuters news service, is a former foreign service officer who was forced out of the State Department after his whistle-blowing book hit the shelves. In “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” the 24-year diplomat wrote about leading reconstruction teams in Iraq under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Van Buren claims billions of taxpayers’ money was wasted by corrupt Americans and Iraqis. Rather than being vindictive about his firing, the center-left Van Buren is a generally thoughtful and reflective commentator. His latest column for Reuters is titled “Trump wants to gut the State Department. Not everyone thinks that’s a bad idea.” Although the column deals specifically with the State Department, Van Buren hits on a truism about all bureaucracies. Van Buren writes about the Trump administration’s anti-State stance — the disappearance of regular media briefings, the lack of foreign trips and policy speeches by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the proposed cuts to State’s budget. “Trump,” Van Buren writes, “wants to cut government, shift money to infrastructure and other proposed programs, and views military force, or its threat, as a primary tool of global problem-solving.” Here Van Buren does two things only an ex-bureaucrat would do: First, he admits that, while some State Department functions are vital, it’s not necessarily essential to have them at Foggy Bottom. Technology has largely removed the need for the State Department’s original function of negotiating with foreign countries. Visa issuance, which Van Buren tags at a $1.7 billion industry, could easily be moved to Homeland Security. The second admission is about bloat. Van Buren says that at the State Department, “overlap grows like wild mushrooms. Large swaths of bureaucracy exist only to support other swaths of bureaucracy. And no one can really be sure what the Department’s Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region of Africa does.” In 1944, economist Ludwig von Mises rightly called rule by bureaucrats “antiliberal, undemocratic, and un-American.” The problem itself, however, is neither uniquely American nor modern. Whether in Ming China or Stalinist Russia, bureaucracies have always been the same. But they are especially a problem in a supposed democracy, as von Mises pointed out. Bureaucracies outlast elected leaders and thwart attempts at reform. Since they are always the “experts” in their subject matter, any meddling politician will be met with the full force of resistance from the system. America, however, has doubled down on the problem through restrictive civil-service protections and public-sector unions. This effectively means that while citizens elect the leaders of the government, those very leaders are powerless to change most of what goes on in the federal bureaucracy, because they cannot change the personnel. And as the saying in Washington goes, personnel is policy. Van Buren is a perfect example of the problem. I wrote above that he was fired for vocally opposing the chain of command, but that is at the end of the story. First, Obama officials revoked his security clearance and gave him a menial task of copying Internet addresses into a spreadsheet. Then, they spent months building a report on his transgressions, mostly exaggerated, before they finally fired him. As was his right under civil-service rules, he appealed the decision while simultaneously announcing a future retirement date from the State Department. Odds are that he received his taxpayer-provided salary the whole time. Whatever one thinks of Bush-Obama diplomacy and nation-building, clearly a president should have the ability to fire someone who loudly opposes government policy. Un-elected bureaucrats don’t run the country, elected officials do. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines. Image credit: cobalt123 via Flickr.