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Public Administration in “Post-Democracy” America: Part 2—Knowing Good from Evil

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
February 18, 2022

This is the second piece in a series of columns I will write for the PA TIMES regarding the implications for public administration in the United States from the emerging crisis of American democracy—the first column on the possible increase in official corruption if America becomes an authoritarian state is available here. This column focuses on the conundrum public administrators inevitably will face should substantive democratic consent be withdrawn from the political sphere: the choice of whether to continue to serve or not. What will be the important fact on the ground is that, without consent, public administrators will no longer be in public service. Instead, they will be in service to authoritarian leaders who may or may not live up to the standard set by the concept of a beneficent dictator.

One of the great ironies in governance is that a beneficent dictator has the potential to achieve far better public policy outcomes on behalf of the citizenry than can any form of democracy. For example, take the complete hot mess that is the current U.S. tax code—bloated, wasteful and packed with inane tax breaks—for example, the oil depletion allowance that allows oil companies to sell oil for profit and then claim a tax break because they sold oil. There seems little chance our democracy can fix this for the better, even if the status quo contributes to the eventual fiscal collapse of the Federal government. A truly beneficent dictator could fix the tax code quickly and permanently because in this case the principle would be taxation without representation.

On the flip side of course, one person’s beneficent dictator is another’s authoritarian demagogue. That is why I recall Harry Truman saying democracy is a terrible system that just happens to be better than any known alternative.

This juncture in America’s history is bringing to the forefront the wicked problem of knowing what constitutes right from wrong, good from evil, when governments make choices. The only way forward for public administrators who find themselves potentially serving an authoritarian state is to have some metric in that regard. If what public administrators are ordered to do by an authoritarian constitutes evil, then complying with that order makes those administrators complicit in evil. My recommendation at that point is to resist or resign.

This is not a new problem. In the military there is the established rule that a subordinate cannot violate certain principles in the battlefield even when ordered to to so by a superior. To say, “I was just following orders,” is not an acceptable defense. Consequently, if the United States becomes an authoritarian state, the longstanding “firewall” between politics and administration must collapse. The loss of democratic consent means that public administrators are automatically embedded in a political system, not an administrative one, and therefore those in administration who continue to serve evil purposes are being political.

A path toward establishing that metric for right and wrong is illuminated by similar defects in democracy. The Melian Dialogue in the Thucydides masterwork, History of The Peloponnesian War, depicts one of the most chilling accounts of a democracy gone wrong. The Athenian council, ostensibly one of the earliest examples of representative democracy, debates whether or not to commit genocide against the Melians. After debate, the council votes for genocide and the Athenian army then kills all the Melian men and enslaves the women and children.

Now, how do we know this is wrong? The answer is that there are principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly say genocide is always wrong and can never be justified. This is an absolute, not relative standard, and it has nothing to do with the increasingly empty ideological debates in the United States over individual freedom versus intergroup equity. An authoritarian state will make choices that inevitably violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such as separating parents from children against their will and placing them in separate concentration camps without meaningful legal recourse. These are evil acts and the standard that makes that clear is absolute and non-negotiable.

I hope those reading this column are realizing the full implications of a potential slide into authoritarianism in the United States. This is will set up profound matters for future generations to reconcile about the choices their fellow citizens made under the guise of public service. All I can say is please choose wisely.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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One Response to Public Administration in “Post-Democracy” America: Part 2—Knowing Good from Evil

  1. Burden Lundgren Reply

    February 19, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    Bravo for this column. We must be on the same page. I recommended to a friend that he read the Melian dialogue just last week. And, in the same work, Thucydides recounts the dissolution of society during the plague of Athens – another account relevant for the times.

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