More on NEPA and the Nature of Bureaucracy

I was thinking about my post on NEPA as the poster-child for our dysfunctional environmental bureaucracy and thought I might expand on a couple of points.

The general problems I describe with bureaucracy were first outlined by James Q. Wilson in his 1975 work, “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State.” Wilson wrote about how the discretionary powers bestowed upon bureaucracies allowed them to grow increasingly unaccountable to the public. Two themes in Wilson’s writing are relevant to our discussion of NEPA: clientelism, and the self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

Clientelism, which is very similar to regulatory capture, is an easy concept to illustrate. For example, whereas the early government created federal departments focused on broad government functions like foreign affairs and the treasury, government in the 20th century began to create departments focused on specific interests, like agriculture and labor. As congress increasingly began to create programs that were aimed at helping specific groups or segments of society, bureaucracies charged with carrying out these programs inevitably became client oriented, devoted to the interests of the particular group the government program was intended to serve. Suddently, government ceases to serve the “public” in the large sense of the word, and rather creates bureaucracies that serve specific “clients.” Once the relationship betweent the bureaucracy and the client is formed, it becomes increasingly difficult to break.

The self-perpetuating bureaucracy is an outgrowth of clientelism. Wilson described the self-perpetuating bureaucracy as one that carried out programs that were initially adopted by broad coalitions that shared a general standard of the public good. As the bureaucracy began to provide benefits to specific groups or interests, however, the bureaucracy formed close relationships with these groups that made it difficult for the large majority to overcome. Wilson wrote: “What was created in the name of the common good is sustained in the name of the particular interest.” When this happens, it becomes particularly difficult to change the program. The result is that government is perpetually increasing not just in size, but in scope, as more and more special interests seek to capture the attention of government programs and functions.

In my opinion, this is exactly what has happened with NEPA. A broadly public, common-good law when written in 1969, NEPA serves an increasingly narrow segment of the public – the environmental litigant. The litigants make greater and greater demands on NEPA, and therefore on the bureaucratic functionaries that are responsible for NEPA, until NEPA in extent, content, and process is wholly captured and controlled by the special interests.

Likewise, the bureaucracy is forced to specialize to an ever greater extent in the application of NEPA to satisfy the narrow interests of the litigants. Every year increasing amounts of time, funding, and manpower is devoted to NEPA while the general public’s interest in the law is ignored. This is clientelism in the self-sustaining bureaucracy, and it is an ugly, ugly thing.



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