“The Deep State”–what is it? Is it real? Is it fiction? If it is real, is it dangerous? To what extent is it harmful? This is a fascinating subject, perhaps partly because we all love a conspiracy theory, true or not. I will suggest that this one has a basis in reality. But I also want to be careful not to overstate my case. I hope to address these questions below.
The term “Deep State” was coined to describe a sort of collusive arrangement primarily within the military and intelligence agencies. It of course has sinister connotations, implying that individuals in this “Deep State” were acting as rogue agents. It carries the idea of a “state within a state,” or a “shadow government.” We are told that its existence has been a concern for many decades. Originally, it was associated with the “military-industrial complex,” or alternatively, including the intelligence community and (interestingly) Wall Street (See Philip Giraldi, “Deep-State America,” American Conservative, 2015: in this respect it resembles a bit the alleged worldwide conspiracy of Jewish bankers and leaders in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. c. 1900). Bill Moyers points to “plutocrats and autocrats.” (“The Plutocrats are Winning. Don’t Let Them,” Huffington Post, 2016). David Talbot emphasizes national security officials (Salon, October 15, 2015) while Mike Lofgren includes Silicon Valley but does not see a conspiracy among these like-minded groups (The Deep State)
The term has most recently been used to describe what is allegedly occurring within the various agencies of the Federal government in the Donald Trump administration. It is said that groups of dissenting bureaucrats are attempting to subvert his administration through leaks, hacking, or other strategies. Some of these individuals might be top level officials, but many are alleged to be career bureaucrats, protected by Civil Service statutes from easy removal or even punishment. Intelligence agency employees are of course included, and are a prominent subject of discussion in this respect. What do we make of these charges?
First, we do know that leaks have occurred, apparently from within agencies, though their sources have not yet been verified. These leaks have been made to media outlets, and the content is likely in some cases classified at some level. The leaks have certainly embarrassed some of President Trump’s appointees, and led at least one to resign (General Flynn). The most prominent target focused on by those who see this as at least a loose conspiracy is intelligence agencies, especially since the type of material might likely have originated there. However we also see activity from the Federal Election Commission and possibly the Justice Department. In the end, thus far, we don’t know much with certainty. But I do believe, whether conspiratorial or not, that there are bureaucrats who would, if possible, engage in this type of subversion rooted in their hatred of Donald Trump as well as the threat he poses to their cherished beliefs.
Now let’s do a little foundational work. It is now empirically well-established by Public Choice theory, and even further back, by Christian Scripture, that all human beings are at least generally self-interested and at worst selfish and egotistical, allowing for exceptions for altruistic actions either “naturally” or because of inner changes brought about by the Holy Spirit in Christians. This principle includes bureaucrats of course. Moreover, the larger the agency the greater the likelihood that significant pathologies will result in bad behavior and outcomes. In addition, historically, the past 60-70 years of Federal hiring in non-military agencies has attracted many more liberal (in the modern sense) applicants and employees than conservatives. Conservatives have tended to gravitate to the business world or some other profit-making enterprise, or to non-profit organizations, rather the the Federal government. And this was made easier by virtue of the fact that between Presidents Roosevelt and Obama, we have had 50 years of a Democratic president, and a relative apathy on the part of some Republican presidents to stress conservative hiring or appointments as important. The result is that Federal agencies are staffed to a great extent by those of a liberal bent. Most of these are career employees. Particular agencies also tend to attract more “zealots” to their ranks, for the example the EPA. Why would a liberal not want to use his or her talents to advance the cause of, say, “environmental justice”? And why would such a person be expected to work actually to produce the abolition of their own agency? Not likely. Their prime motivation would likely be to keep the agency in business, expand its mission, and expand his or her own scope of authority, at the least.
When President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” he meant the reduction of the power and size of Federal agencies and of course the number of employees. This must have been a shock for many bureaucrats and may well have also caused som to resolve to oppose the new administration. Some of those bureaucrats might be willing to become as subversive as possible and some to the point of outright illegal actions. They know that it will be difficult to catch them, and if they are found out, it will be difficult to punish them, even if the leaks and other activities amount to felonies.
Does the Deep State exist? I am convinced it does, if by it we mean not necessarily a grand conspiracy, but a group of like-minded bureaucrats, encouraged possibly by outside organizations, to oppose and obstruct the new president. What do we do? I have made suggestions before, but to summarize, we need first aggressive and courageous cutting of people and budgets (today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked dozens of Justice Department lawyers to resign–or of course be fired). Second we must return to the “constitutional system” that prevailed before the Progressive Era, a system that emphasized limited government and small bureaucracy. Third, we need drastic administrative law reform (see Philip Hamburger’s book, Is Administrative Law Lawful?). Fourth we need to re-emphasize Article I and make Congress, not delegated power to agencies, the locus of legislation. Take away bureaucratic authority (Note the Article One Project). Fifth, and most difficult, we need a massive change of public opinion away from an entitlement mentality to a self-governing mentality. That will take a long time, and I fear it might never occur, as we may have crossed into irreversible territory. But there is always hope.
My sympathies are with President Trump, but bureaucrats have reportedly said, “I was here when you came and I will still be here when you leave.” There is truth in that, unless we can somehow reverse that situation.