Thursday, March 27, 2008

Progressivism, Bureaucracy and the Limits of Government

In Search for Order 1877-1920 Robert Wiebe* argues that a bureaucratic philosophy emanated from the Populism; late 19th century Utopian visions of Henry George and Edward Bellamy; the social Gospel of Reverend Washington Gladden; the Utopian new order of Henry Demarest Lloyd; and the evolutionary historicism of Lester F. Ward (who argued that economic history followed four stages) and Richard T. Ely (who argued that history followed seven stages). The bureaucratic philosophy was not, in Wiebe's view, well-formulated. It combined elements of scientific management with pragmatism and an early version of Progressivism (Wiebe, p. 145):

"The ideas that filtered through and eventually took the fort were bureaucratic ones particularly suited to the fluidity and impersonality of an urban-industrial world. They pictured a society of ceaselessly interacting members and concentrated upon adjustments from within it...the rules, resembling orientations much more than laws, stressed techniques of constant watchfulness and mechanisms of continuous management...Bureaucratic thought made science practically synonymous with 'scientific method'. Science had become a procedure, or an orientation, rather than a body of results...The new ideas concerned what men were doing and how they did it. As Arthur Bentley said, the individual was meaningless as a unit for investigation: only men's social behavior deserved analysis...

"...The sanguine followers of the bureaucratic way constructed their world on a comfortable set of assumption. While they shaded many of the old moral absolutes, they still thought in terms of normal and abnormal

"...Endless talk of order and efficiency, endless analogies between society and well-oiled machinery, never in themselves supplied an answer. Instead of careful definitions, they offered only tendencies...One explained process through human consent and human welfare. The second construed process in terms of economy: regulate society's movements to produce maximum returns for minimum outlay of time and effort...Touching almost every area, this view appealed particularly to business, labor and agricultural organizations

(p.160)"the new political theory (progressivism) borrowed its most revolutionary qualities from bureaucratic thought, and the heart of these was continuity...Trained professional servants would staff a government broadly and continuously involved in society's operations...Above them stood the public man, a unique and indispensable leader. Although learned enough to comprehend the details of a modern, specialized government, he was much more than an expert among experts. His vision encompassed the entire nation...As the nation's leader the public man would be an educator-extraordinary. He bore the greatest responsibility for raising mass intelligence to the level of true public opinion. That, as Franklin Giddings explained, 'is rational like-mindedness...'

"...(p.161) the theory was immediately and persistently attacked as undemocratic, an accusation that never ceased to sting its defenders...the theory also presupposed an ethereal communion between leaders and citizens. As all citizens became rational they would naturally arrive at the same general answers...national rationality would assure consensus on big issues..."

What a brilliant 20 pages from Professor Wiebe. But here's the rub. The bureaucratic model as Wiebe construes it utterly misconstrues the cognitive limits of rationality. Processes of production require a degree of flexibility that is far greater than governmental processes permit. The degree is greater by orders of magnitude. There is no such thing as a priori rationality in real world produciton processes. Rationality is ONLY derived from continuous application of thought to specific processes. No one could arrive at a solution a priori. This is true with respect to production systems, which according to total quality management and continuous improvement require ever more refined adjustment that is only possible by operators with knowledge on the spot. It is true with respect to retail sales people who must make on-the-spot decisions to accommodate customers. It is true with respect to teachers who see that a given approach to education is not working with their students and need to adjust the approach. It is true with respect to Theodore Dalrymple, who observes that welfare policies established by central authority decimate low-income Britain but is powerless to change them. Bureaucratic thought overestimated the importance of statistical and theoretical, i.e., "scientific", knowledge to production processes, and it vastly underestimated the sensitivity of production processes to on-the-spot information. But on-the-spot information is not conducive to a unitary rational solution; a Volkish meeting of the minds between ruler and ruled; or a solution by bureaucratic experts.

*Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

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