In the previous installments of this look back on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, I have identified specific policy areas of failure that historians and FDR partisans ignore, downplay, or explain away in their infatuation with the nation’s 32nd president. (Read parts one, two, three, and four.) This installment will focus on FDR’s more fundamental and seemingly permanent transformation of America’s government from the constitutional republic created by the nation’s Founders into a managerial state.
Those historians, intellectuals, and FDR partisans who heap unreserved praise on the New Deal are usually themselves infatuated with government’s power to do good in the world. They are more than willing to trade some liberties and freedoms (usually other people’s) for the empowerment of the government ruling class. FDR was their ideal leader — unprincipled, power-hungry, willing to bend and if necessary break constitutional limitations to impose their vision of what FDR’s later imitator Lyndon Johnson called “the Great Society.” In the process, the New Deal “brain-trusters” laid the foundations of the managerial state that has since then only grown in power and appetite.
We can’t say that we were not warned about the negative implications of the New Deal. In 1941, James Burnham, a former Trotskyite turned liberal anti-communist, wrote The Managerial Revolution. Though written more than 80 years ago, it explains how the Roosevelt administration’s policies institutionalized what President Dwight Eisenhower later called the “military-industrial complex” and what President Donald Trump more recently called the “deep state.”
Burnham believed that the managerial revolution was a worldwide phenomenon, as evidenced in the totalitarian bureaucratic states of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy, and to a lesser extent in Roosevelt’s United States. The worldwide shift manifested itself, he wrote, in the broadening “scope of the activities of the state.” As the state assumed greater powers in the name of “progress,” it necessarily grew in size and bureaucratization, and led to the rise of a new ruling class that Burnham labeled the “managers.” This new ruling class was no different from history’s other ruling classes — its primary goal was to achieve, maintain, and expand its political and social power and influence. And Burnham noted that FDR’s new ruling class had “boundless self-confidence” in its wisdom and ability to better mankind.
To bring about “progress” the ruling class needs to influence, if not control, the “most important economic, social, political, and cultural institutions of society,” Burnham wrote. And control of the state would allow the managers to use and expand coercive powers to impose their vision of the good society. As Burnham noted, the intellectuals and bureaucrats who formulated and implemented the New Deal “believe that they are [acting] in the name of truth and for the interests of all humanity.” They cannot allow mere constitutional or legal limitations to stand in the way of “progress.” When that occurs — for example, when the Supreme Court invalidated several New Deal programs — the ruling class tries to strike back, as FDR did in his attempt to “pack” the Court.
A key element in the rise of the managerial state in the United States was the Roosevelt administration’s expanded power over the nation’s economy. Burnham warned that increasing “control over the instruments of production will be exercised by the managers through their de facto control of the state institutions — through managers themselves occupying the key positions in the ‘unlimited’ state which, in the managerial society, will be a fused political-economic apparatus.” The result of greater state involvement and control of economic affairs, Burnham wrote, “will not be classlessness and freedom, not even universal material well-being, but a new form of exploiting, class society — managerial society.” And he predicted:
Managerial society is a class society, a society in which there are the powerful and the weak, the privileged and the oppressed, the rulers and the ruled. If we base ourselves upon what we know from the past and not on dreams of other worlds, there is no reason to think that the law which decrees that all social groups of any size try to increase their relative power and privilege will be suspended in managerial society.
“[W]e should have little faith,” Burnham wrote, “in the promises of . . . the New Dealer.”
Burnham focused on how in the United States of the New Deal era, laws were no longer being made by Congress, but instead by the “NLRB, SEC, ICC, AAA, TVA, FTC, FCC, the Office of Production Management, and other leading ‘executive agencies.” He noted the “enormous growth of the ‘executive branch,’” which increasingly exercises legislative and even judicial functions. Executive bureaus and agencies, he wrote, are increasingly assuming the powers of the representative political institution. “In the United States,” Burnham explained, “the political-structural changes proceed in managerial directions with most evident and rapid speed.”
Burnham did not directly blame FDR for the creation of the managerial state, but, he wrote, “as a brilliant and demagogic popular politician,” he enabled and rode the New Deal “when it fits his purposes.” FDR oversees the managers but the revolutionary goals are theorized and the revolutionary work is carried out by “the … group of administrators, experts, technicians, bureaucrats” — all placed throughout the state apparatus. Burnham described them as “confident and aggressive,” having “no faith in the masses,” and “openly scornful of capitalists and capitalist ideas.” “They believe they can run things,” wrote Burnham, “and they like to run things.”
Burnham lamented the “New Deal’s ‘attempts to encroach on liberty,’” and he labeled the ideology underpinning the New Deal as “progressivism,” not liberalism. The New Deal, he continued, “undermined capitalist institutions” and propagated anti-capitalist messages designed to reconcile the masses to the rule by the managers.
The war, of course, also added to the growth of the managerial state (“war is the health of the state”). And with the emergence of the Cold War, managerialism infected and expanded the national security state.
Burnham, who died in 1987, would not be surprised at the immense power of today’s managerial state in Washington, D.C., where medical bureaucrats govern how physicians treat their patients and impose unprecedented restrictions and mandates on businesses and individuals; where military bureaucrats seek to control the thoughts and opinions of our soldiers; where education bureaucrats encourage the labeling and possible prosecution of parents as “domestic terrorists”; where economic bureaucrats control the supply of money and the rates of interest that people can earn on their savings; and where environmental bureaucrats impose restrictions on the use of private property.
Michael Lind has noted in a Wall Street Journal column that the United States is ruled today by a managerial oligarchy composed of politicians, corporate managers, and progressive intellectuals that hold power “at the commanding heights of the economy, the culture, and politics.” He calls them a “single conformist caste,” and sees the wave of populism that is the Trump movement as a reaction to this managerial elite. Like Burnham in 1941, Lind today accuses the managerial elite of seeking “to remove decision-making authority from legislatures … and deliver it to administrative agencies, courts and transnational institutions.” (Unsurprisingly, Lind cites in this column Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution). Lind rightly views the rise of the managerial state as a threat to democracy, liberty, and freedom. And we have Franklin Roosevelt to thank for that.