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California Shows What Happens When Nobody Checks The Administrative State: Everything Burns Down

The Darwinian evolution of our constitutional framework promoted by Woodrow Wilson has fully run its course in California.


In California, the embarrassing disconnect between the state’s whole-of-government approach in the fight against climate change versus the smoking reality of spectacular failure is seen where it counts: in the real world.

A Wall Street Journal editorial on Oct. 23 cited a University of California study finding that California’s 2020 wildfire emissions “were two times higher than the state’s greenhouse gas reductions from 2003 to 2019.” The study cited “decades of fire suppression and underinvestment in preventive measures such as mechanical clearing or prescribed burns.”

I noted as much several times, including here and here.

The Journal’s editorial concludes, “Democrats in Sacramento seem incapable of political self-reflection. But it’s deeply ironic that their monomaniacal focus on cutting greenhouse gases emissions has resulted in more greenhouse gas emissions.”

Now, many Democrats in Sacramento know what to do — they’re trying. But they find themselves increasingly bound by a metastasizing version of government set into motion a little more than a century ago, drawing from both Charles Darwin and John C. Calhoun.

Woodrow Wilson was our first and only political scientist president. Before his election in 1912, the Democrat was president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey for two years. Wilson was also an insufferable racist and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan whose views that whites were a superior race were rooted in Social Darwinism.

But Wilson famously invoked Darwin in other contexts as well, most notably regarding government as bound by the Constitution, saying during his 1912 campaign:

[G]overnment is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live.

Wilson’s statement wasn’t isolated. Only four years earlier, he made the same point in his treatise “Constitutional Government in the United States.”

Thus, Wilson, and the early progressives with him, argued that the Constitution was an anarchic document fit only for an agrarian America and was wholly inadequate to the challenges of a modern, industrial society.

In tandem with their belief in a living Constitution flexible enough to allow the ready shaping of the government it once bound, early progressives sought to create an administrative state. This theory of managerial government envisioned a system administered by dispassionate professionals with elected officials only providing general guidance.

Now, 110 years after Wilson’s criticisms of the Constitution, his war socialism, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, and the explosive growth of federal regulations under Richard Nixon have fundamentally altered the national government in both power and practice. Wilson’s vision of a government as a living thing has been fully realized — though perhaps with different results than he would have intended.

Convergent Evolution of the Administrative State

Thus, in an odd way, instead of the checks and balances as intended by the Constitution’s framers, with each of the three branches of the federal government having specific powers that they zealously guard, with power further divided between the national government and the many states, we arrive at what evolutionary biologists would see as convergent evolution. That is, checks and balances via the administrative state, with each body of power having almost total control over its ambit.

So, in California, when a fire marshal becomes concerned about a buildup of fuel — each year, about 4 billion board feet of timber grow in California, with a fraction of that now harvested — the fire official’s recommended preventative burn is hung up in a bureaucratic limbo.

The local Air Quality Management District has a say and can stop the burn.

Should the fire official recommend mechanical clearing — former President Donald Trump famously called this “raking the forest” — then environmentalists sue to stop the burn under both the California Environmental Quality Act and its federal counterpart.

Further, the need to “seek input from stakeholders” prior to any burn or forest clearing — a process that Calhoun would immediately recognize as his theory of concurrent majorities in action at the local level — causes additional delay.

The net result is that the needed preventative work gets put off while community input is received, studies are completed, and lawsuits are resolved — until nature or poorly maintained powerlines intervene and spark a deadly, carbon dioxide-belching wildfire.

Thus, the Darwinian evolution of our constitutional framework promoted by Wilson has fully run its course and reached near perfection in the Golden State. As a result, America’s most progressively leftwing state finds itself bound up, Gulliver-like, by thousands of bonds of its own making, with few officials directly accountable to the people at the ballot box. The real-world implications being that prescribed burns don’t happen and bullet trains end up taking many years and many tens of billions of dollars more to bring to completion, if at all.

An old-fashioned constitutional system wouldn’t be so bound to inaction. The people’s representatives would respond to the problem of wildfires and appropriate the money to address it. The elected executive would carry out the needed work. And the judiciary would only be brought in to deal with claims or to resolve conflicts between competing law.

Of course, this is too mechanical, too Newtonian for the left.

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