Article Title

Optimal Abuse of Power


Adrian Vermeule

Publication Date

Spring 2015


I will argue that in the administrative state, in contrast to classical constitutional theory, the abuse of government power is not something to be strictly minimized, but rather optimized. An administrative regime will tolerate a predictable level of misrule, even abuse of power, as the inevitable byproduct of attaining other ends that are desirable overall.

There are three principal grounds for this claim. First, the architects of the modern administrative state were not only worried about misrule by governmental officials. They were equally worried about “private” misrule—misrule effected through the self-interested or self-serving behavior of economic actors wielding and abusing power under the rules of the 18th-century common law of property, tort, and contract. The administrative state thus trades off governmental and “private” misrule. Second, the rate of change in the policy environment, especially in the economy, is much greater than in the late 18th century—so much greater that the administrative state has been forced, willy-nilly, to speed up the rate of policy adjustment. The main speeding-up mechanism has been ever- greater delegation to the executive branch, accepting the resulting risks of error and abuse. Third, the costs of enforcing legal rules against executive officials are necessarily positive and plausibly large, in part because any institutional monitors created to detect and punish abuses must themselves be monitored for abuse.

The architects of the administrative state believed that a government that always forms undistorted judgments, and that never abuses its power, will do too little, do it too amateurishly, and do it too slowly. In that sense, the administrative state constantly gropes towards an institutional package solution that embodies an optimal level of abuse of power.