In 1928 Homer Ferguson, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, took to the pages of the Nation’s Business to complain about the federal government. The problems he addressed were not the usual bugbears of red tape, inefficiency and waste. Rather, Ferguson argued that government sometimes worked too well. “A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive,” he said. “He eats holes in our liberties.” Even worse was an “enthusiast,” that “bright-eyed madman who is frantic to make this the finest government in the world.” Ferguson was candid about his animus toward good government. He was a military contractor, building warships for the Navy, and he feared that bright and talented public officials might figure out how to build boats faster and cheaper than he could. Much better a government unworthy of that trust. “The best public servant,” he concluded, “is the worst one.”
In The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank argues that the spirit of Homer Ferguson is alive and well in the Republican Party. It was resurrected in the 1980s, when President Reagan appointed an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who opposed most environmental regulation and eviscerated the agency’s enforcement division. It lives on in the hapless cronies and inexperienced ideologues the Bush administration has elevated to positions of authority, of whom Michael Brown and Monica Goodling are only the most famous examples. And its presence explains, at least in part, according to Frank, the triumphs of misgovernment to which Americans have been subjected during the past eight years: the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, various scandals involving military contracting and regulatory snafus in matters ranging from food safety to financial markets.
Frank argues that the public failures of the Bush administration are the very essence of conservative government–the predictable outcome of the anti-Washington, free-market ideology that has triumphed within the Republican Party and in national politics over the past three decades. Conservatives won elections by arguing that government is an oversized and unaccountable drag on the economy; they proceeded to starve agencies of funds and replace public-sector employees with private, for-profit contractors. The result is a demoralized, hollowed-out state that does not work very well, except to redistribute wealth from taxpayers to corporate lobbyists and interest groups. “Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals,” Frank writes. “It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society.”
A journalist and cultural critic with a gift for polemical writing, Frank peppers his account of the evolution of antigovernment governance over the past three decades with observations about life in Washington, from the sartorial tastes of its lobbyists (“these days…orange or lavender” neckties) to the absence of mall rats at the underground shopping center in Arlington’s Crystal City (“just army officers in camo and executives in suits”). Such entertaining reportage does not quite conceal a scattershot approach to history, an irritating prosecutorial tone and a cartoon portrait of American conservatism. Still, The Wrecking Crew is a useful introduction to a world of pricey lobbyists, crackpot theorists, bought legislators and hapless government. And, in part through these very caricatures, the book gets at some essential questions about politics and markets in a democratic society.