Perhaps as a sequel of mankind’s long tribal history, people apparently need scapegoats to shed the weight of sins and responsibilities from their shoulders. In democratic countries, “unelected officials” figure among the favorite scapegoats. It is an easy path to follow under the sun of simple beliefs, and I confess I once found it tempting.

Elon Musk also seems to walk into this cul-de-sac in his otherwise worthy resistance to the Australian government’s censorship (“Elon Musk Criticizes Australia for Ordering Removal of Stabbing Video,” Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2024):

“Should the eSafety commissar (an unelected official) in Australia have authority over all countries on Earth?” he posted, using a disapproving nickname to refer to the eSafety commissioner.

What difference would it make if the commissar were an elected official? It is elected officials who have adopted the laws requiring the hiring of bureaucrats to enforce these very laws. Indeed, the Australian prime minister himself, arguably the ne plus ultra of elected officials in that country, supported his bureaucrat against Musk’s social media.

It is true that, without any hired official, the power of elected ones would be reduced to the vanishing point. But this is not an argument for the whims of elected officials to replace any power they have delegated to bureaucrats. Power, whoever exercises it, needs to be constrained by the rule of law, and we can trust politicians to respect this limit even less than bureaucrats. Any individual or company, except for cronies, faces a more perilous situation if an elected official can rule on his whims.

Consider the following example. Imagine what would happen if Donald Trump could, as it is being debated among his would-be advisers, run the Federal Reserve (see “Trump Allies Draw Up Plans to Blunt Fed’s Independence,” Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2024). The creation of money at the call of American presidents in the 1960s and 1970s generated inflation that, at the end of the period, grew to more than 10% per year, higher than what we experienced over the past three years as a consequence of the Trump and Biden deficits. In the early 1980s, two recessions were needed to tame inflation.

Good reasons exist to believe that central banks are not only useless but detrimental. We have good reasons to believe that truly private money and banking would be more efficient. But there is little doubt that monetary policy would be more capricious and dangerous if it were wielded by some elected czar. The outcome would likely be more monetization of government deficits up to hyperinflation.

Back to our general topic. Elected officials have too much power, which allowed them, in fact obliged them, to delegate some of it to the administrative state. Thankfully, laws constrained the latter, even if imperfectly, to follow some general rules. The problem is power, not how it is shared within the state (even if the sharing can limit it to a certain extent). It would be much worse if power were concentrated in politicians, especially under a czarist presidency. The same argument would apply to Joe Biden or any other glorified politician. Of course, the more ignorant the elected official is, the higher the probability of dumb errors.

Elections do not provide the needed constraint. The typical voter remains rationally ignorant because his vote does not change the result of an election and he has therefore no incentive to spend time and resources gathering information on political platforms, public policies, and their likely consequences. Most voters know little about how “their” government works. Ask a voter chosen at random to tell you what the money supply is composed of, or what were the annual deficits under Trump and Biden, and he will not even know where to find the answer. If he does find correct information with the help of Google, he will likely not understand the methodology and significance of the numbers.

Public choice economics strongly suggests that the democratic glorification of “elected officials” is no less dangerous (and, I would say, likely more dangerous) than the mystique of the disinterested bureaucrats. Through their working under rules, as they are expected to, bureaucrats can at least dampen the whims of politicians.


A government bureaucrat turned into a scapegoat for enforcing the laws adopted by elected officials

A government bureaucrat turned into a scapegoat for enforcing the laws adopted by elected officials (Source: DALL-E under the influence of Pierre Lemieux)