It is quixotic to assume that we might do away with the administrative state and its experts and return American government to its nineteenth-century form—let alone that we might pursue an even more radically participatory form of Jeffersonian democracy. It is pusillanimous and anti-republican, not to mention mean-spirited, to sneer at the importance of common citizens’ judgments in holding the bearers of state power to account.
We must therefore perform a balancing act with regard to our ideal of self-government. We must neither take it too literally, such that we see the presence of any specialization or division of labor as inherently suspect nor allow ourselves to bandy the words about as empty rhetoric. To the extent we resist exaggeration, we will be better able to take the principle seriously when embracing it is the appropriate action. Self-government should absolutely retain its place in our pantheon of civic values and faith in its worthiness should be cherished. When there are institutional design choices to be made, we should seek to promote self-government at the margin, notwithstanding the protests of well-qualified experts. But we should not pretend to monotheistic devotion, lest we look like awful hypocrites.
Image credit: Pamela Au