Lessons from “Smoking and Politics”

This article will discuss the role of the bureaucracy in the regulation of policy by considering the specific book Smoking and Politics.

In Smoking and Politics by Fritschler and Rudder there were numerous state agencies and bureaucratic organizations which are mentioned as having been involved in the policy process over time. Three of these organizations would include the FTC, the FCC and later on the FDA. There are both benefits and problems involved in the use of bureaucrats which have not been elected and they depend on the manner of selection of those bureaucrats.

The FTC means the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was established in 1914 for the purpose of ensuring competitive business practices. To that end the FTC has historically been involved in reducing monopoly and trusts. In 1964 the FTC got involved with tobacco by recommending that health warnings be put into tobacco advertisements and on packages. Two years later the advertisements began being printed. This was not the first or the last time they were involved, but it was a landmark. The commission had brought actions against tobacco companies dating back to the 1930s at least.

The FCC is the Federal Communications Commissions. The FCC was established in 1934 for many purposes all related to communication in some way. Along with a wide variety of responsibilities, the FCC is also endowed with a wide array of powers. After the FTC began regulation of the tobacco industry the FCC was next in line. In the early 1960s there was a New York lawyer named John Banzhaf who conceived of a regulatory idea. It was called the fairness doctrine and held that for every plot of time a tobacco company buys for advertisement, the agency which sells the time should provide an equal amount of time free of charge to a group with an opposing view. He recommended this regulation to the FCC and they agreed to a modified version for TV. They would require a significant, but not necessarily equal, amount of time for the tobacco and opposing sides.

The power of the FCC to regulate broadcast communications in such a way as to mandate free air time was met with strong question and resistance. Eventually the issues resulted in a case being brought before a judicial court. On November 1968 a court of appeals found that regulation of that sort by the FCC was within their power. FCC regulation of the tobacco and other industries went on in this way for a while and soon after the FDA jumped on board as well.

The FDA means the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA is the descendant of an organization authorized in 1906 by the Food and Drug Act which is also called the Wiley Act. The Food and Drug Act has wide authority to regulate food and drugs. To begin regulation of tobacco the agency needed to justify consideration of tobacco as food or a drug. In 1994 the FDA contacted their friends in the media and arranged for the release of a carefully crafted letter which detailed the fact that the FDA would consider regulating tobacco as a drug due to the pharmacological effects of the nicotine which tobacco contains. In 1995 President Bill Clinton backed the FDA in starting regulation of tobacco.

The FDA, FCC and FTC are all public bureaucratic organizations which are constituted by officials which are not elected. The alternative to election is selection and selection can occur in a multitude of ways. To determine whether or not selection is better than election therefore depends on which kind of selection we are talking about. The form of selection used in the US is a hybrid of political appointment for the higher offices of bureaucracies and a somewhat meritocratic system for the bulk of the bureaucracy. I find the political selections to be an entirely poor process because they constitute an increase to the power of the executive branch by an order of magnitude. Political selections also call back the days of the spoils system. The spoils system was done away with because it caused problems for the implementation of government policies.

When a new president is elected who has a different ideology than the previous president it results in a lame duck session where nothing gets through the political process because the other branches of government lack an incentive to work with the lame duck president. A similar thing can occur under a spoils system. If an opposing party is elected to government then the current workers thoughout the bureaucracy will realize that any work they do will only be negated and reversed when the next party moves to occupy their positions. This creates a lame duck session for the bureaucracy. As agencies multiply and the number of political selections and appointments multiply alongside them we find ourselves returning to a spoils system like model of governance and we will increase these kinds of lame duck incentives for the bureaucracy. It is for this reason, in addition to the reason that it reduces the constitutional checks and balances on the executive branch, that political selection is not preferable.

The meritocratic standard, however, can be useful if it is done right. It is not done right here in the US for two reasons. The first reason is the direct result of combatting the spoils system. In combatting the spoils system it was made much more difficult to fire public servants and other factors have fed that movement as well. The difficulty in losing a job creates a motive to shirk and work without efficiency for the public servants. Besides the difficulty in firing, the standards for hiring are not terribly high to begin with. If we demanded greater ability from our domestic servants we could in turn reduce the overall number of them and increase efficiency in a way just as it is done in the private sector. While our implementation of the meritocracy is somewhat poor here in the United States, it is not the case that any meritocracy would have to be poor by some kind of necessity as was the case with political selection. A fine-tuned meritocratic standard which could dynamically self-adjust to economic conditions over time would be just as good as, or potentially even better than, a standard of election from the viewpoint of getting things done.

In fact, election itself is a bit of an inefficient standard if you think about it. Elections as we conduct them here in the US are not equivalent to free markets. In a free market an informed person has a larger ability to determine outcomes than an uninformed person. One way this would show up is in the form of income. People with higher ability have a bigger income. People with higher ability do not have a larger number of votes. In some sense voting is simply not consistent with a true meritocracy and is therefore less efficient than a well done meritocracy.

The problem with meritocracy is the difficulty in crafting a fine-tuned and self-correcting hire and fire policy for public servants. The poster child for fine-tuned and self-correcting systems is the free market which is the antithesis of a planned system. Free markets exhibit spontaneous order. To create an efficient government would require somehow synthesizing government and the free market. Competing and voluntary social contracts might be able to achieve this. If the free market and government cannot be synthesized, the next best thing appears to be a minimally planned economy, although it seems to be the case throughout history that minimally planned political system creep into larger and further planned political systems over time. A minimally planned political system might involve maximizing public choice for services like education or maximizing privatization of as many government responsibilities as possible.


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