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Stopping the Mandarins

Article by Ike Brannon July 23, 2013 //   5 minute read

My former Joint Economic Committee colleague Tim Kane, now the chief economist at the Hudson Institute, just put out his second book of the year, a thoughtful tome called “Balance” that examines the various great civilizations of the past and asks both why they ultimately collapsed and whether their collapse holds lessons for the United States.

Kane’s previous book, “Bleeding Talent,” looked critically at the officer class in the U.S. military and asked whether we are fully taking advantage of its prodigious talents, to which he answered an unambiguous “no.” The sclerotic bureaucracy and hidebound promotion procedures ultimately frustrate nearly everyone hoping to make a career in the military and leave us with a system where we can’t be sure we have the best people in the most important jobs.

While the two books seem almost completely unconnected, the two books do share a common thread: Centralized decision-making can be hazardous to a country.

Kane and his co-author, Glenn Hubbard, argue in “Balance” that a key to a long and prosperous civilization is that it must have the ability to survive bad leaders. No country can ensure that only the wisest people will ascend to be president, prime minister, or the dear leader, so there needs to be a check on their ability to ruin things.

These checks and balances can take many forms: An independent bureaucracy, a parliament or Congress invested with real powers, or a system of local governments with the ability to make their own laws.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy, in his magisterial book “The Men Who Lost America,” argues that it was the gradual rise of parliamentary power in the 18th century, at the expense of the monarchy, that allowed Great Britain and its empire to withstand a monarch like King George III in his latter days when he took leave of his senses.

The U.S. doesn’t score so well on this metric of late, with both Democratic and Republican administrations doing their best to invest more power in the executive branch, and Congressional leaders of all stripes merely paying lip service to the now-quaint notion of federalism.

While we may lament this state of affairs, some of these checks can go too far, Kane and Hubbard argue. The Eunuchs in China eventually gained enough leverage to steer the government to their advantage, as did the Janissaries in Turkey. Ditto the imperial bureaucracy in England and the legislative staff in California, who do much of the heavy lifting in a legislature where term limits force neophyte legislators to assume the chairmanship of important committees. Eventually, they argue, the entitled class of government overseers in each case turned the governments away from an open, expansionary purview towards an inward-looking, restrictive orientation. Whether it involved burning all ocean-going vessels, forbidding all interactions with foreigners, building a Hadrian’s Wall, or raising the state income tax over 13%, the retrenchment of economic activity sounded a death-knell for these empires, argue Messrs. Kane and Hubbard.

Which brings us to the one positive message of “Bleeding Talent,” at least in the context of “Balance”: For better or worse, the officer class has relatively little sway over military expenditures. Our government spends tens of billions of dollars on dubious weapons systems because they happen to be produced in the Congressional district of a member of the House Armed Services Committee. And though the military might have welcomed the post 9-11 build-up, the two-front war in Afghanistan and Iraq was not its idea. And the military fought the drastic reductions in the defense budget that came with the rescission, to little effect.

But the military's lack of budgetary sway is small grounds for celebration. Here’s hoping that a future administration embraces the tenets of federalism and the constitutional constraints on the power of the executive a bit more forcefully than has recently been the case.