Offspring of Depravity

The origins of the administrative state, and why they matter

To a degree that is, I think, unusual among other areas of the law, administrative law in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada is riven by a conflict about its underlying institution. To be sure there, there are some constitutional lawyers who speak of getting rid of judicial review of legislation and so transferring the constitution to the realm of politics, rather than law, but that’s very much a minority view. Labour unions have their critics, but not so much among labour lawyers. But the administrative state is under attack from within the field of administrative law. It has, of course, its resolute defenders too, some of them going so far as to argue that the administrative state has somehow become a constitutional requirement.

In an interesting article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” recently published in the Notre Dame Law Review, Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson challenge the defenders of the administrative state by pointing out its intellectual origins in what they persuasively argue was

a time, worldwide and in the United States, of truly awful ideas about government, about humanity, and about the fundamental unit of moral worth—ideas which, even in relatively benign forms, have institutional consequences that … should be fiercely resisted. (828)

That time was the 1930s.


Professors Calabresi and Lawson point out that the creation of the administrative state was spearheaded by thinkers ― first the original “progressives” and then New Dealers ― who “fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions”. (829) At an extreme, this rejection of the belief in equality led them to embrace eugenics, whose popularity in the United States peaked in the 1930s. But the faith in expertise and “the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls” (829) is a less radical manifestation of the same tendency.

The experts, real or supposed ― some of whom “might well be bona fide experts [while] [o]thers might be partisan hacks, incompetent, entirely lacking in judgment beyond their narrow sphere of learning, or some combination thereof” (830n) ― would not “serve as wise counselors to autonomous individuals and elected representatives [but] as guardians for servile wards”. (830) According to the “advanced” thinkers of the 1930s, “[o]rdinary people simply could not handle the complexities of modern life, so they needed to be managed by their betters. All for the greater good, of course.” (834) Individual agency was, in any case, discounted: “the basic unit of value was a collective: the nation, the race, or the tribe. Individuals were simply cells in an organic whole rather than ends in themselves.” (834)

Professors Calabresi and Lawson are careful to stress that the point of their argument is not condemn the administrative state by association with the worst excesses of the times in which it originated. Rather, they want to push back against the trend, exemplified in articles such as Gillian Metzger’s “1930s Redux: The Administrative State Under Siege“, of treating the foundation of the administrative state as deserving of particular deference or respect. They explain that

[b]ecause there is no authoritative constitutional text emanating from the 1930s, any reasons for treating that decade as interpretatively sacrosanct must focus on the moral goodness of the ideas that grounded that period. Many of the intellectual currents that dominated the 1930s were, frankly, very bad. As a starting point for thinking about human affairs, one’s first instinct should be to run as far away from that decade as quickly as one can. More fundamentally, the bad ideas of the 1930s that specifically drove the construction of certain parts of the modern administrative state—belief in omnipotent government by socially superior experts under broad subdelegations of legislative power, with a formal (or rote) separation of powers seen as an anachronistic hindrance to modern scientific management of people, who are not ends in themselves but simply means to the accomplishment of collective nationalist or tribalist ends—are at the intellectual core of just about everything bad that occurred during that decade. (839)

Professors Calabresi and Lawson conclude that, instead of looking to the 1930s as a source of public law we should ― even on purely moral grounds, in addition to fidelity to law ― we should look to the 1780s and the 1860s. The former decade was marked by “libertarian and egalitarian commitments to replace European feudalism with something new and better”, (842) as well as to separation of powers; the latter, by important progress in the implementation of those libertarian and egalitarian commitments, initially admittedly honoured in the breach in many ways. Professors Calabresi and Lawson also appeal to another historical point: the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, to which they trace what they call “the principle of legality, which says that executive and judicial actors can only act in accordance with preexisting law”. (863)


While I think it is a little, and perhaps more than a little, optimistic to connect this principle ― this formulation of the Rule of Law ― to the Magna Carta, it is supposed to be central to Canadian, and not only American, administrative law. As the Supreme Court said in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, “[b]y virtue of the rule of law principle, all exercises of public authority must find their source in law.  All decision-making powers have legal limits”. [28] But the belief in the superiority of administrative power wielded by alleged experts for what is deemed, by them, to be the public good is very much a part of our administrative law too, and it goes back to the same roots as that of the American champions of the administrative state. As co-blogger Mark Mancini has argued here,

the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. … For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean [the] school of thought[] dominant in the New Deal era.

As Mark notes, “in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives” ― though of course they looked to the United States for inspiration. (There’s anything wrong with looking to the United States, of course; that’s what I’m doing here!) But then again, we had also had our own band of eugenicist progressives too, some of whom have statues on Parliament Hill. And we had our more peculiar rotten ideas about government too. The 1930s were a bad time ― arguably an especially bad time― in Canada, as well as in the United States and, for this reason, the argument made by Professors Calabresi and Lawson is relevant to Canadians.

Of course, the Canadian constitution is not the same is the American one. In particular, it does not incorporate as strong a conception of the separation of powers. Arguments to the effect that the administrative state in its current form is unconstitutional are much less straightforward in Canada; perhaps they are wrong. Certainly the case against the delegation of legislative power is more difficult to make under the Constitution Act, 1867, than under the U.S. Constitution. But all this means is that the moral case made by Professors Calabresi and Lawson is that much more significant. If the modern administrative state is the misbegotten offspring of an especially depraved epoch, then it should be dismantled, even if it is not unconstitutional. (The case for it being constitutionally required, however, is that much weaker ― not that it had much strength to begin with.)

And the advice to look to the 1780s or the 1860s is applicable to Canada too. Admittedly, the 1780s do not hold the same significance for our constitutional history as they do for our neighbours. But the ideas of what Jeremy Waldron calls “enlightenment constitutionalism”, which Professors Calabresi and Lawson associate with the 1780s, are relevant to Canada. Indeed, our own constitutional arrangements implement some of what, as I suggested in my critique of Professor Waldron’s arguments here, were the Enlightenment’s signal contributions to constitutional thought ― federalism and judicial review of legislation. As for the 1860s, sapienti sat.


As I noted at the outset, the moral worth of the administrative state is not just a matter for political philosophers to debate. It is an issue that is tied up with the ongoing fights about the details of administrative law doctrine. Perhaps this worth is unconnected to its sinister origins. But I think that it is for pro-administrativists to make this case. And I am quite skeptical that they can succeed. As have noted a number of times, most recently here, “[t]he administrative state is the state of prisons, of border control, of professional regulators determined to silence their members if not to impose official ideology on them”. It has come rather less far from its smug, authoritarian beginnings than its defenders would have us believe.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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