Legitimacy and the Administrative State: Ontology, History, and Democracy

By Bevir, Mark | Public Administration Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Legitimacy and the Administrative State: Ontology, History, and Democracy


Bevir, Mark, Public Administration Quarterly


The state appears to be facing a legitimacy crisis. Longstanding electoral democracies have experienced a steady decline in popular legitimacy and participation. Surveys point to falling rates of trust in government and declining support for elected politicians across many states since at least the mid-1970s (Dalton 2004). Citizens have become more and more suspicious of politicians and public officials, and more and more dissatisfied with existing political and administrative processes. Research also points to declining rates of voting in elections. According to one global study, the percentage of eligible voters who cast a vote in elections that were classified as competitive rose steadily between 1945 and 1990, but then dropped. Whereas the average participation rate for elections held during the 1980s was 68%, this figure fell to 64% in the 1990s (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2009).

The American case is instructive. A few years ago, Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project found that the period from 1960 to 2000 marked the longest ebb in voter turnout in U.S. history (Patterson 2002). In the run up to the 2000 presidential election, the Project found that more than 60 percent of regular voters agreed with the statement: "Politics in America is generally pretty disgusting" (Patterson 2000). More generally, while caution is always needed in interpreting public opinion studies, a good deal of evidence suggests that there is a deep divide between public preferences and actual public policies on a wide range of domestic and international issues. A 2005 Gallup poll, for instance, found that more than 7 in 10 Americans agreed that the country would be better off "if the leaders of our nation followed the views of the public more closely" (Newport 2005). In a 2008 poll, four in five Americans agreed that their country is "run by a few big interests looking out for themselves," rather than "for the benefit of all people" (Program on International Policy Attitudes 2008).

How are we to explain and evaluate the rising tide of anti-government sentiment? Scholars of Public Administration have often wrestled with the problem of legitimacy. One noteworthy recent example is Thomas Catlaw's Fabricating the People: Politics and Administration in the Biopolitical State (2007)--the subject of this symposium. Catlaw argues that the problem of legitimacy arises in large part from the assumptions the administrative state makes about "the People". He claims that the state behaves as if it were based on a single sovereign entity called "the People" when really there is no such entity. In his view, the awkward ontology of the People underlies the difficulties that we have--as scholars and citizens--in making sense of the discretion that individual bureaucrats possess given their role is meant to be one of enacting the public will as expressed by democratically-elected representatives. It is perhaps worth emphasizing that Catlaw's argument is that there is no "People" and so no "Public Will" that exists, let alone exists as any kind of unified entity, prior to representation and construction. Thus, Catlaw's aim is obviously not to advocate an alternative form of government that would properly reflect the will of the People. His aim is, rather, to offer an ontological diagnosis of the legitimacy problem confronting the administrative state.

Arguably, few people today actually believe in a unified popular will. We live in multicultural societies. Neoclassical economists and rational choice theorists have spread formal and folk versions of the idea that humans act on self-interest, including politicians and bureaucrats. Many of us are thus likely to agree with Catlaw's conclusion that the People as a unity does not exist. For us, the interesting questions to ask of his book are ones such as: How are "fantasies" of a popular will constructed? What is the ontological nature of a people? How did the state come to embody an allegedly unified People? …

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