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Of things and men

A tangle of rules and administration is creating a new and troubling kind of government

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

Remember high-school civics class, where we learned the three basic forms of governance? If not, they are democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy; government by the many, the few, and the one. Our own government is becoming harder to classify. While officially it's a democracy (or a democratic republic), rumors persist about an imperial president or a cabal of elitists who really run things. But another form of government begs recognition: bureaucracy, or "rule by a piece of office furniture."

That metaphor comes from The Administration of Things: a Genealogy, by Ben Kafka of New York University. The title of his essay is a phrase attributed to Claude-Henri de Rouvroy Saint-Simon, a French aristocrat who barely survived the Reign of Terror to become a political philosopher. The job didn't pay much, but had its perks, including a circle of admirers who popularized the principle attributed to him: that "the government of men must be replaced by the administration of things."

This idea from a little-known intellectual has had an interesting history. Originally "the administration of things" was supposed to mean human emancipation. Saint-Simon and his followers defined "things" in the broadest possible sense: goals, traditions, principal products, even weather. These were to be administered according to science rather than metaphysics, by what could be known as opposed to what couldn't. Religion, whatever benefit it was to the soul, had no place in government. Science measured real, objective stuff-"thingness." Things could be administered for the good of man without religious interference.

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When Friedrich Engels, colleague of Karl Marx, encountered Saint-Simon's formula, he tied it to communist theory. Government was the ruling class's tool of repression. When, in the natural course of history, workers took over the production of things (material goods, by his definition), the state would have nothing to repress, therefore its function would disappear and government as we know it would wither away, leaving only administration.

That made sense to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but he didn't see it coming about naturally-violent revolution would clear the way. When violent revolution came, and failed to eliminate the state, the authors of The ABC of Communism (1920) counseled patience: Once all adult members of society were actively participating in production, "the government of men will be replaced by the administration of things-of machinery, buildings, locomotives and other apparatus."

Stalin had other ideas, which included the elimination of the authors of The ABC of Communism.

In the United States, the administration of things has taken a more benign path, with "things" retaining the broader sense of desirable goals, like security and well-being. But the effects are not benign. Modern administration is a computer-generated digitocracy, doubling or tripling the paperwork of the old filing-cabinet system. For responsiveness, a computer is no improvement over a filing cabinet, as anyone who has tried to dispute an EPA ruling knows.

The 2010 healthcare law is a milestone of "thingness." Nancy Pelosi's famous dictum that we must pass the bill in order to find out what's in it is only partly true: We'll never know its full potential for mischief. Already it involves over 180 agencies and bureaus, levies 21 new or higher taxes, requires 16,500 IRS employees, and has generated 13,000 pages of regulations-so far. The phrase "the Secretary [of Health and Human Services] shall determine" appears 1,563 times in the bill, and what this unelected autocrat shall determine is limited only by her ambition.

The president may call it Obamacare, but he knows no more about it than the average congressman-it's the work of nameless staffers. When 2,700-page legislation is passed with few if any of those who voted for it having actually read it, we might deduce that no one is really in charge.

Engels was right, in a way: Government as we know it is withering, its original form barely discernible in the tangle of administration, like trees in a kudzu forest. What seemed like a good idea to Saint-Simon is actually a headless beast, and the administration of things threatens to become the thingification of men.

Email jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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