Hate Petty Bureaucracy? Become a Socialist.

Right-wingers oppose social programs like Medicare for All on the grounds that they create "powerful new bureaucracies." But it’s means-tested benefits, not universal programs, that empower bureaucrats to act like petty tyrants.

President Bill Clinton signs the controversial welfare reform bill into law in the White House's Rose Garden in 1996. (Dirck Halstead / Getty Images)

In my recent debate with Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk, I asked him how he can call himself a populist when he doesn’t even support pro-worker policies like Medicare for All. He responded that while a social safety net is fine, when that net becomes an overly generous “hammock,” it empowers government bureaucrats rather than ordinary people.

As I explained in the debate, that’s completely wrong. Bureaucrats are empowered not by broad and generous social programs but by means testing. It’s democratic socialists, not capitalism’s defenders, that want to give bureaucrats less sway.

Socialism and Bureaucracy

The idea that more socialism means more bureaucracy seems obvious to many people. But why?

It’s true that democratic socialists want to strengthen the regulatory state with environmental protections and laws against union-busting and racial discrimination. It’s also true that these types of policies involve empowering officials who work in offices and spend a lot of time filing paperwork — i.e., bureaucrats — to enforce them. Popular culture often portrays such people as petty tyrants that make life difficult for struggling businesspeople. Think about the officious health inspector on Bob’s Burgers (played by Sam Seder) or the villainous Environmental Protection Agency official in the original Ghostbusters.

But less than 10 percent of the US population is business owners. To be sure, that’s a category that includes far more small businesspeople than genuine members of the economic elite, but the idea that regulations empower bureaucrats at the expense of the great mass of ordinary people doesn’t make much sense in terms of pure arithmetic. A person in the United States is vastly more likely to be a worker protected by labor regulations than a boss dealing with annoying regulators.

The connection might make more sense if we shift our focus from regulatory policies enacted under capitalism to socialism as a postcapitalist economic system. Under capitalism, economic enterprises are owned by individuals or stockholders. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a human resources department knows that corporations can be as bureaucratic as anything the public sector produces, but it’s true that the socialism that existed in countries like the USSR was different. The economy was run by a state bureaucracy that wasn’t answerable to any other part of society.

This isn’t the only possible form of a postcapitalist economy, though. For example, firms producing consumer goods could be collectively owned and democratically operated by the workers themselves. (This is the “full democratic socialism” advocated in the book I’m cowriting with Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara and Mike Beggs.)

Even if we’re talking about the Soviet system, the power of bureaucrats didn’t come from the fact that Soviet citizens enjoyed social services more expansive than Americans. Similarly, if we’re talking about “partial democratic socialism” — policies like Medicare for All advocated by socialists as reforms within capitalism — nothing about these measures would strengthen the power of bureaucrats. Exactly the opposite is true.

Means Testing and Bureaucracy

Consider K–12 public schools in the United States. In the current setup, these are free at the point of service, but we could imagine a means-tested version of the public school system. Only families below a certain threshold would be able to send their kids to school for free. Everyone above the cutoff would pay tuition.

Which do you think would involve more aggravating interactions with bureaucrats: enrolling your kids in the local public high school in that world or in this one? In both scenarios, you’d have to fill out some information either at an office or on a website that would eventually reach someone with an office job. But the key difference is that in our world, the people in those offices don’t exercise much influence over the outcome. If you live in the district, they have a legal obligation to educate your kid, free of charge. In the world with means-tested K–12 education, you’d have to prove to these gatekeepers that you qualified. They’d scrutinize your income sources while you sweated.

Happily, we don’t live in that world (at least for precollege public education). But we very much do live in that world when it comes to health care. Are you a low-income person applying for Medicaid? Public-sector bureaucrats will take a hard look at whether you’re poor enough to qualify. Are you a middle-income person with employer health insurance? If you have to use it in an emergency, private-sector bureaucrats applying byzantine rules will decide if the company will pick up some or all of the tab. Given your own perusal of those policies, do you think they should have picked up more? Get ready for many fun hours pleading with them over the phone.

Tell someone in a country with universal health insurance about these experiences and they’ll look at you with a mixture of horror, amusement, and pity. More than one American who’s moved to such a country has noted the liberating experience of realizing they never have to talk about the health care they’re receiving with anyone who isn’t a doctor or a nurse.

Taking sectors of the economy like health care and higher education entirely out of the market, with no ifs, ands, or means testing, is a very good idea for many reasons. People stay in terrible jobs and even abusive marriages for fear of losing their health insurance. Gay children of fundamentalist parents have good reason to worry that their parents might stop writing tuition checks if they come out of the closet. A disturbing number of people die every year because they didn’t go to the doctor to check on something that could be nothing because they didn’t want to deal with the co-pay. Along with these more dramatic considerations, an excellent reason to support socialist policies in these areas is that doing so disempowers bureaucrats.

When right-wingers try to scare people with vague talk of bureaucracy, they’re appealing to an understandable human urge to avoid having to jump through hoops and justify ourselves to petty gatekeepers. But their argument doesn’t make any sense. If you don’t want to give government officials control over your life, you shouldn’t want them to have the power to decide whether you qualify for basic goods like education and health care and housing. You should want to live in a society where receiving such benefits is regarded as a right that everyone has by virtue of being a human being.

In other words, if you’re worried about overzealous bureaucrats, you should be a socialist.