Matthew Crawford on the Administrative State

For my money, Matthew B. Crawford is one of the most original thinkers around just now. I first came across him via one of Giles Fraser’s editions of the Radio 4 Thought for the Day. On a rare occasion where the programme caught my interest, Fraser drew on Crawford’s Why We Drive to argue provocatively that God does not, in the first instance, exist to make us feel safe but to save and love us. I immediately went out and bought the book. Readers of this blog will remember Crawford’s influence on my covid counterfactual, my 2020 New Year reflections, and my final Covid Diary on risk and liberty, rightly ordered. 

In a recent piece for Unherd, entitled “The new public health despotism”, Crawford uncovers the intellectual history of the administrative state—more on that term shortly—and helps to explain the long-developing shifts that have disturbed many, myself included, in the relationship between the government and the governed over the last 18 months. It makes for necessary reading not only as a retrospective analysis but also as a prospective warning as governments, including in the UK, consider stricter “plan B”s ahead of Christmas. 

In a meandering yet coherent and compelling argument, Crawford provides the psychological, political and cultural context for the administrative state (“the good faith intellectual positions that greased the skids for our slide into an illiberal form of governance”, in Crawford’s turn of phrase). Before constructing the intellectual scaffolding of the administrative state, Crawford defines his terms. The administrative state, drawing on Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger’s work, refers to

a vast array of executive agencies that empower themselves to place people under binding obligations without recourse to legislation, sidestepping the Constitution’s separation of powers. In theory, only Congress can make laws. Its members are subject to the democratic process, so they must persuade their constituents, and one another. But as the administrative state has metastasised, supplanting the lawmaking power of the legislature, unelected bureaucrats increasingly set the contours of modern life with little accountability. They stake their legitimacy on claims of expertise rather than alignment with popular preferences. This trajectory began a century ago in the Progressive era, and took large strides forward during the New Deal and Great Society.

The main thrust of Crawford’s piece is that, with the emergence of the coronavirus, a propaganda state has taken control, with persuasion abandoned in favour of a network of governmental and para-governmental actors that seek to create the conditions for manipulating particular behaviours and ideas (if all of this sounds vaguely conspiratorial, just wait; Crawford backs up his argument with a strong evidence base). Now, to be fair, there is an acknowledgement that this behavioural control is well-intentioned, and indeed, might be necessary in emergency situations. Crawford draws a distinction drawn between “well-meaning efforts to control the pandemic by altering people’s behaviour”, on the one hand, and “political opportunism”, on the other. Yet the road to hell is so often paved with good intentions. And, in any case, intentions can be difficult to determine. The more concrete, and yet deeper question, which Crawford poses splits into two:

  1. what do the efforts of Western governments to contain the coronavirus by behavioural manipulation reveal about the ends and means of governing?
  2. And, in light of these goals and instruments, what do we glimpse of the administrative state’s anthropology, or view of human nature?

In addressing these questions, the rest of the piece takes us through two movements in intellectual history that “have greased the pole” for the current public health regime, before concluding with a stunningly resonant historical parallel which has been little discussed—airport security. 

Psychological Developments and the Rise of Behavioural Management

The first movement belongs to the field of psychology and we can call it behavioural management. Here, phenomenology and embodied cognition have replaced, or at the very least pushed to the fringes, rational actor theory. 

At the philosophical level, Merleau-Ponty and others posited that as animals with bodies, we first and foremost react to the world at the pre-cognitive level. “The kind of thinking that consists of chains of propositional statements and logical inferences is a special case, not typical of animals with bodies”.

Futher down the line economists “got psychologised” as theorists realised that the behavioural change model could result in altering market choices. 

In their book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out that individual choices don’t usually happen in a vacuum. They are often sculpted by a “choice architecture” that may be more or less deliberate in its design, but generally operates beneath the threshold of awareness, as a kind of background cognitive scaffolding. A classic example is the placement of items on grocery store shelves. High margin items tend to be placed at eye level, while impulse purchases are placed in the slow-moving checkout line. Sugary cereals are placed at a child’s eye level, so the kid will nag his mother for some Lucky Charms. Why not exploit the power of choice architecture for the public good, and replace the Lucky charms with Brussels sprouts?

What to make of this development? A spate of recent studies in moral psychology hammers home the point that we are not entirely rational and in fact make moral decisions on the basis of gut instincts and pre-cognitive values. Crawford acknowledges that a theory of human action based on rational actor theory alone is reductive and dangerous. At the popular level, Jonathan Haidt and James KA Smith, each in very different fields, have made these ideas available for a broad audience and to good effect (Smith famously uses the personal example of reading the environmentalist Wendell Berry while eating fast food at Costco). And yet, crucially, none of these three would deny that reason also has its place. The political and economic use of behavioural management throws the rational baby—indeed the entire family of reason—out with the bathwater.

What is called for is an individual wisdom and, at points, wariness towards these instruments of statecraft (social media, technology), and a questioning of the ends to which they are being put.  

Political Developments and the Rise of Deliberative Democracy

All of which brings us neatly into the second movement which Crawford describes, this one belonging to the political science. This is the development of deliberative democracy within liberalism.

Crawford insightfully highlights liberalism’s uneasy relationship with democracy. On the positive side of the ledger, the two joined forces against absolute monarchy in the nineteenth century and again in the mid-twentieth to fight Communism. Once those common enemies were pushed back, if not defeated, however, unrest quickly set in once more and a growing unease developed among liberal intellectuals towards populist movements. This was true in 1861 with John Stuart Mill and history seems to have repeated itself more recently in the diverse movements against liberal excesses, including, each in their own way, Trump and Brexit. How can we explain this topsy-turvy relationship? In many ways, the roots of this dis-ease lie in a cultural rift between a small class of governing elites and the masses. On the one hand, the elites seek “new cultural terrain and projects of self-cultivation” which conflict with, because they seek to jettison, “religious interdictions, as well as the parochial affections and commitments by which the masses took their bearings”. 

Returning to deliberative democracy, Crawford argues that the key impetus of this movement was not to tap into these shared commitments and loves (of place, community, nation), but to set up a rival worldview and establish the right conditions that would lead the populace to accept the liberal worldview. Crucially, all of this happens “beneath the threshold of explicit argument”. John Rawls stressed that “if you could just establish the right framing conditions for deliberation, the demos would arrive at acceptably liberal positions”. 

The methods of ruling quickly become control of the argument and the narrative. The psychological developments in behavioural management are pushed into the service of the political aims, as nudge units become the instruments of pushing the liberal worldview. On this score, one of the fascinating (and to me previously unknown) stories mentioned in the article, is the close relationship between Google and the Obama administration (Cameron also used nudge units in his election campaigns). As Crawford explains,

In an important article titled “”, law professor Adam J. White details both the personnel flows and deep intellectual affinities between Google and the Obama White House. Hundreds of people switched jobs back and forth, some of them multiple times, between this one firm and the administration over eight years – an unprecedented alignment of corporate power and the executive branch. White writes that both aspired to “reshape Americans’ informational context, ensuring that we make choices based only upon what they consider the right kind of facts—while denying that there could be any values or politics embedded in the effort.”


Crawford ends his piece with a resonant historical parallel to the recent attempts at mass behavioural management: airport security. Like Covid regulations, this development grew out of an emergency situation, only it has remained with us ever since. Yet the whole endeavour is of dubious efficacy:

in independent audits of airport security, about 80-90% of weapons pass through undetected. The microwave machine presents an imposing image of science that helps us bury such knowledge.

As the rulers—and increasingly the ruled—abandon reason and debate in public life, the upshot is that we subtly and almost imperceptibly move from a society ruled by trust and the assumption of general human competence (“within reason”, as the phrase goes), to one in which we are essentially driven by impulse and whim, easily manipulated. The tools for such manipulation lie close at hand and are easily overlaid with the sheen of democracy and majority choice. When we add to the mix the spectre of emergency situations—or situations declared to be emergencies—such as we have witnessed these last 18 months, then we have the conditions for widespread compliance towards government orders. As Scruton remarks, “emergencies spell the end of civil politics”. 

One take-away from Crawford’s piece is that a government’s declaration of an emergency—and the stated, or unstated, duration of that emergency—must be subjected to the intense scrutiny of the governors and governed alike. For, if Crawford is right, then it is precisely such a declaration that has the potential to hasten the abandonment of persuasion and the onset of government-backed behavioural management. After all, in an emergency, the ends can quickly come to justify any means. 

Image Credit: Unsplash (the blowup)

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