The Common Good Administrative State

The Internet has been captivated by Professor Adrian Vermeule’s provocative essay in The Atlantic on so-called “common good constitutionalism” (CGC). CGC could be describes as part of a larger theory that co-blogger Leonid Sirota calls “right-wing collectivism,” which “blends support for using the power of the state to advance traditional moral values, a hostility to free markets, and nationalism.” CGC picks up the mantle in the legal realm, with Vermeule suggesting that “substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read in the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution” should be the starting point for interpretation. These substantive principles include

…respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality”—indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority.

CGC is clearly distinguishable from other political and legal theories of interpretation. It does not ally itself with originalism, in that originalism is not expressly designed to promote certain substantive political aims. On the other hand, CGC does not take freedom of the individual as the dominant good in a polity, as libertarians might. Instead, CGC intends to promote substantive conservative ideals in constitutional law.

This is a rough-and-ready description of CGC, and for those who want a more in-depth description of the theory’s substantive ends, Leonid Sirota has written a post on CGC here, and others have written well-justified critiques of Vermeule’s position. My goal in writing today is to suggest some implications of CGC for administrative law and the delegation of power to administrative agencies. I do not think that a state or court that sets out to accomplish what Vermeule suggests would be able to avoid delegating power to agencies—this Vermeule seems to acknowledge. The question is whether such delegation is desirable, and whether the conservative adherents of Vermeule’s theory would themselves accept an ever-growing administrative (rather than democratic) behemoth.

I first describe what Vermeule says about the administrative state in his controversial piece and a related piece. Then I address some implications of CGC for administrative law and delegation. My view is that CGC depends–crucially–on the administrative state to effectuate its aims. But there is no guarantee that the administrative state can be wielded to achieve those goals.

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Vermeule spends the majority of his time talking about the ends associated with his CGC, and rightly so: these are controversial aims that run against orthodox opinion and established authority. However, he does devote some time to discussing how his CGC will affect the “structure and distribution of authority within government.” It is worth quoting the entirety of what Vermeule says about administrative agencies and bureaucracy; clearly, these institutions form the means to Vermeule’s ends:

As for the structure and distribution of authority within government, common-good constitutionalism will favor a powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy, the latter acting through principles of administrative law’s inner morality with a view to promoting solidarity and subsidiarity. The bureaucracy will be seen not as an enemy, but as the strong hand of legitimate rule.

This is the entirety of what Vermeule says about bureaucracy in his piece, but there is a lot of meaning packed in these words. The last link in Vermeule’s comments links to another piece he wrote in which he discusses the ability of the administrative state to actively promote religion. In this piece, Vermeule suggests that “specialization” in administrative agencies is neither here nor there on religion, because “specialization is an intrinsically neutral institutional technology.” Vermeule says, on this basis:

So the administrative state, in my view, is an institutional technology that can be put to good or bad ends, and is no more intrinsically hostile to religion than is, say, the use of written rather than oral communication.

[…]

Let me distinguish two ways the administrative state could be put to beneficial use to promote religion. One is by clearing away legal and economic obstacles to religious practice, obstacles thrown up by other sorts of institutions; another is by directly and affirmatively promoting religious values.

For Vermeule, then, the picture seems to be of an administrative state actively advancing a certain discretionary agenda, perhaps unconstrained by constitutional or legal arguments that might confine that discretion, with the gargantuan task of promoting “solidarity and subsidiarity.” Unfortunately, no matter whether such a state is desirable, I do not find such a state practical in any sense of the term.

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Consider, first, the supposition that the bureaucracy would be “strong” in itself, acting under a “strong” Presidency. This comment seems to recall the unitary executive theory, under which “whatever authority the executive has must be controlled by the President.” This includes bureaucratic agencies operating under the President. These sorts of agencies can be contrasted with independent agencies, typically styled as such because their heads are removable by the President only for cause (though see Vermeule’s piece here). On the unitary executive theory, bureaucrats fall under the control of the President, exercising his constitutionally-delegated Article II authority.

At first blush, the unitary executive theory might appear to be a normatively desirable way to control bureaucrats. After all, Article II is clear that it is the President who holds the executive power, and so any exercise of that power must be controlled by the President. This theory has infiltrated the Supreme Court of the United States’ cases, particularly the so-called “Peek-a-boo” case (PCAOB v Free Enterprise Fund).

But practically, I have always been skeptical that the unitary executive theory is any more than a constitutional ideal rather than a practical, empirical fact. That is, it is somewhat of a legal fiction. The President of course cannot control every executive agent. And this is where Vermeule’s use of the administrative state as an instrument of CGC will falter. The political science and public choice literature is rife with theories of bureaucratic “drift,” under which agency members might “drift” from the statutory authorization giving them power. The same type of executive drift is possible from the perspective of the President; where preferences diverge between career staff and bureaucrats may have ideas of their own. After all, “…agencies (often have different goals than politicians or different judgments about how best to achieve those goals.” (see Jacob Gerson’s piece here). In the United States, for example, Jennifer Nou has written about civil servant disobedience, an increasingly prominent phenomenon during the Trump era. What is the Vermeulian plan for a disruptive civil service, with its own preferences, and its own agenda? In other words, do we think a strong bureaucracy will fall in line to CGC?

For example, one form of contestation might arise when a CGC President wants to promote “subsidiarity.” What incentive is there for a national administrative agency to embrace the principle of subsidiarity in the exercise of its legal functions? This seems to be a situation where there could be a classic preference divergence, where in the halls of power there is probably an incentive to arrogate more and more power to federal authorities over local authorities.

The upshot of Vermeulian CGC is that it would, I suspect, necessitate a mass amount of delegation to administrative agencies (though Vermeule does not expressly say this). Keeping in mind that Congress already has a difficult time in deciding how to monitor its delegations of power, and given that the pace and breadth of delegation seems to grow year over year, I have no faith that a CGC-based state would be able to control the mass delegation it plans. And it is worthwhile to question whether more delegation to administrative agencies is at all desirable.

These concepts are not new, and are fairly simple to understand. But they represent general rules about how the bureaucracy operates. There is no guarantee that a strong bureaucracy, as Vermeule wants it to be, will be a faithful agent for the President.

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But let’s assume that such a unity of identity and purpose is achievable—the administrative state, under this understanding, could become a tool for CGC and its programs. But this illustrates the problem with administrative power, based on it is upon contested notions of expertise and the “science of administration”: these tools can be easily co-opted and turned against CGC. On this account, the administrative state could be a self-defeating enterprise for CGC.

It is interesting, at least to me, that Vermeule calls the administrative state a neutral “institutional technology.” This might be strictly true, but it harkens back to an era when we spoke of ideas of strictly neutral expertise, or of the administrative state’s neutral status as a collection of good-faith individuals working towards the public good. One of the notions inculcated by the administrative law functionalists of a previous generation (like Wilson, Landis, and Goodnow) was the idea that administrative technology should be kept independent from the travails of politics. On this account, the administrative state might be described as a neutral technology.

But as I have written before (and as Vermeule seems to tacitly acknowledge), there is nothing technological or neutral about the administrative state. As mentioned above, agents within the state may have their own goals. But more importantly, if delegation is the so-called “engine” of the administrative state, then the currency we are really speaking about in administrative law is power. Power is what administrative agents act on when they create rules and make decisions. Courts are primarily concerned with whether these rules and decisions fall within the scope of the enabling power, and/or whether the power exercised by delegated officials is justified. Power, then, is given by the legislature to the delegated actor, and it is that power we should be concerned with.

Vermeule accepts that this power can be used to advance religious goals, or perhaps goals centred around the constitutional aims of CGC. But it is just as likely that this power can be co-opted by bureaucrats, courts, or politicians or judges of a different stripe, to advance an exact opposite version of the “common good.” As I wrote before:

Progressives have spent more than a generation asking courts to stay out of the business of administration, especially because of their supposed conservative and market-based political philosophy. This largely worked. The administrative state is now entrenched in many common law countries. But administrative power knows no ideology. Its only ideology is power, in a raw sense. That power—being judicial, legislative, and executive power merged—can be wielded by those with anti-progressive goals, or more dangerously, by those with authoritarian tendencies who seek to “throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

The number of times this has happened in administrative law history are too many to count: but consider the use of administrative agencies by FDR to advance the New Deal, and then the capture of these agencies some 50 years later by President Reagan to advance his deregulatory agenda. Recall that Chevron deference was introduced during the Reagan era, and served to assist the Reagan administration’s environmental agenda. The administrative state’s allyship with power makes it a dangerous tool that can be used for partisan or political ends that CGCers would find abhorrent. 

This is not, in itself, a bad thing. In fact, it subjects the administrative state—to the extent permissible with preference divergence—to the democratic accountability of elected officials. But let’s not pretend that the administrative state can be a neutral technology that always and everywhere can be transformed to CGC ends.

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If the administrative state is fundamentally about power, then we should be careful about its exercise. This is the traditional way we view power in constitutional law and administrative law. For example, judicial review in Canada is concerned with surveillance of lower decision-makers in order to ensure precise conformity to their enabling statutes (see Wall, at para 13; Vavilov, at paras 108-110). The same is true in the United States. CGC, then, turns the typical discussion of judicial review of administrative action on its head. Instead of discussing how best to control administrative decision-makers through doctrine, CGC seems to harken back to an old era of administrative law theory, where there is an implicit trust in administrative decision-makers to simply do the right thing. For the reasons I’ve noted above, it is unlikely that this will ever be the case. But as co-blogger Leonid Sirota points out, there is a downfall to assuming that power can simply be trusted to a massive administrative state, advancing the “common good” (whatever that turns out to be defined as):

From this recognition there should proceed, as I repeatedly insisted my post on the corrupting effects of power, to a further acknowledgement of the importance not just of moral but also of institutional and legal constraints on power. We must continue to work on what Jeremy Waldron describes as “Enlightenment constitutionalism” ― the project of structuring government so as to separate out and limit the power of those whom Professor Vermeule calls “the rulers” and empower citizens. This project recognizes the need for power but also its temptations and evils, and the fallibility of human beings in the face of these temptations and evils. As James Madison, in particular, reminds us, we should strive to so design our institutions as to make these human weaknesses work for us ― but we can only do so if we are acutely aware of them.

Much administrative law is best conceived in this light. We are talking, after all, about the law which governs administrators—the judicial and legal controls that we apply to ensure the legality of state power. The worry is even greater in administrative law contexts, because Parliament can easily escape the strictures of judicial control by delegating power away. Judicial review, on this front, is concerned with managing the risks associated with delegated power, and the discussion should be the best doctrine to effectuate that concern. But CGC seems to unleash the administrative state, putting trust in the bureaucracy to achieve its aims. This, to my mind, is a classic mistake.

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Of course, I cannot address all of the implications of CGC in this (relatively) short post. I have tried to focus on a few implications for the world of administrative law. The metes and bounds of CGC will, hopefully, be fleshed out in further academic debate and discussion. For now, though, I am skeptical that the mass delegation of power that CGC will likely entail to the administrative state will be worth the risks associated with that delegation.