You Cannot Drain The Swamp

You cannot drain The Swamp; where would you put it? Populist politicians the World over run on some version of ‘draining the swamp’, the famous metaphor popularized by Ronald Reagan. Populists of all stripes vow to not only kill a few buzzing mosquitoes, but to exterminate them all. They are all wrong. The metaphorical ‘swamp’, the network of aides, lobbyists, attorneys, etc. that forms around centers of power cannot be destroyed. To understand why this is so, we must first understand the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

German sociologist Robert Michels at the beginning of the 20th century affirmed that any organization, regardless of its stated values, ends up being governed by an inner circle of professional managers. This, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, has ended up being one of the most replicated findings in social science, and in truth it is accessible to those of us who have worked for large corporations. In a corporation, or a labor union, or whatever, the day to day tasks of governing fall onto a class of professional managers. Those managers, in turn, rely on each other, ‘network’ in today’s lingo. The managers end up being a self-renovating class—an oligarchy—that runs organizations ranging from the Standard Oil trust to the Bolshevik Party.

This is what happens in Washington D.C., in the state capitals, and for that matter in other centers of power such as Silicon Valley. Taking D.C. as an illustrative example, federal legislators, hundreds of them, arrive at D.C. from their districts. Those legislators will need aides, attorneys, and policy specialists. They could not possibly do their job without a staff. But even those aides feel overwhelmed in the job. They turn to specialist ‘consultants’ for their information.

Populist politicians rail against the corruption that often follows from those arrangements. But they are railing against the wrong thing. The corruption takes place as a byproduct of the relationships that naturally form in the process of governing. If a meteor were to wipe out Washington DC and northern Virginia tomorrow morning, a new lobbying network would form before the Sun sets over the Potomac. A government as powerful as our creates the swamp out of its own weight.

I can almost hear the objections of some of my readers. ‘You want us to give up.’ ‘Defeatist.’ Or even, ‘cuck!’, and ‘loser!’ But that’s not what I want you to do. The problem is not ‘The Swamp’, but the enormous size and scope of our governments. The Federal Government alone spends four trillion dollars a year, often in areas it has no business intruding. Many of those functions properly belong to different levels of governments, to civil society, or to the people. Concentrate on reducing the power and scope of government, and The Swamp will retreat on its own.

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