Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream

President Woodrow Wilson - Campaign Button

President Woodrow Wilson – Campaign Button

Until the victory of Andrew Jackson and his hoard of uncouth Democrats in the presidential election of 1828, the relatively tiny Federal government and its agencies were staffed largely by genteel men connected with the Eastern establishment. The Jacksonians came out of the expanding Western and Southern states, which resented the high tariffs imposed by the Eastern establishment to benefit manufacturers, and the new Democratic Party practiced the spoils system of patronage appointments — government jobs were filled by political supporters, and the promise of a government job was often the motivation for campaign workers. While today many see election contributions as corrupting, it was far more wasteful and corrupt to have government jobs turned over to barely competent campaign workers. This turnover on the election of a new administration did remove staff who might not implement the new administration’s policies, but it also broke continuity and allowed for more corruption. This was not terribly harmful to the newish country since federal agencies had limited scope and power over commerce — after Jackson’s inauguration, 10% of government officers were replaced by new appointees, but that was 919 replaced out of less than ten thousand employees total.[1] For comparison, if postal workers are included, there are now around 2.8 million Federal employees.[2]

Corruption scandals were frequent, and the reform movement to bring in a professionalized meritocratic civil service at the Federal level succeeded with the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, which created a bipartisan Civil Service Commission to fill positions by merit and protect current employees from political interference. The number of jobs so protected expanded with each administration as they moved to shield their own political appointees from removal at the end of their terms, until all but the most senior policymaking positions were covered. Today, political appointees have to deal with a permanent bureaucracy under them, which can successfully resist needed reforms as well as corruption.

The idea of a civil service originally came from China, where for a thousand years positions in Imperial service were filled through difficult examinations covering Confucian doctrines, poetry, and calligraphy, which while not directly relevant to most bureaucratic work, at least selected for competence in writing and thought. While in theory such exam systems would allow anyone of any class to demonstrate merit and move into a powerful position, in practice only the children of the landed gentry had the time and resources to study for the exams, but at least their system kept out those whose only qualification was a powerful patron.

As an interesting side-note, the Chinese idea of meritocracy goes back at least 2300 years. The recent discoveries of writings on bamboo from that era revealed considerable philosophical ferment, with the idea of rulers abdicating their power to successors selected by merit as the proper action of a wise ruler:

The manuscripts’ importance stems from their particular antiquity. Carbon dating places their burial at about 300 BCE. This was the height of the Warring States Period, an era of turmoil that ran from the fifth to the third centuries BCE. During this time, the Hundred Schools of Thought arose, including Confucianism, which concerns hierarchical relationships and obligations in society; Daoism (or Taoism), and its search to unify with the primordial force called Dao (or Tao); Legalism, which advocated strict adherence to laws; and Mohism, and its egalitarian ideas of impartiality. These ideas underpinned Chinese society and politics for two thousand years, and even now are touted by the government of Xi Jinping as pillars of the one-party state.

The newly discovered texts challenge long-held certainties about this era. Chinese political thought as exemplified by Confucius allowed for meritocracy among officials, eventually leading to the famous examination system on which China’s imperial bureaucracy was founded. But the texts show that some philosophers believed that rulers should also be chosen on merit, not birth—radically different from the hereditary dynasties that came to dominate Chinese history.[4]

The Chinese Imperial civil service was widely admired by Europeans and was the inspiration for civil service reforms in the British Empire, where posts had previously been handed out by patronage or directly sold. The British East India Company College was founded in 1806 to train bureaucrats for their Indian civil service, and the idea of merit and examinations to select the best employees for government service spread through Europe and to the US.

Before he was elected president, the Progressive academic Woodrow Wilson wrote “The Study of Administration,” an essay setting forth his ideas on how public agencies should be organized. In 1886, his ideals of eternal, professional bureaucracies expanding enlightened government control over every service may have sounded achievable:

There is scarcely a single duty of government which was once simple which is not now complex; government once had but a few masters; it now has scores of masters. Majorities formerly only underwent government; they now conduct government. Where government once might follow the whims of a court, it must now follow the views of a nation.

And those views are steadily widening to new conceptions of state duty; so that, at the same time that the functions of government are every day becoming more complex and difficult, they are also vastly multiplying in number. Administration is everywhere putting its hands to new undertakings. The utility, cheapness, and success of the government’s postal service, for instance, point towards the early establishment of governmental control of the telegraph system. Or, even if our government is not to follow the lead of the governments of Europe in buying or building both telegraph and railroad lines, no one can doubt that in some way it must make itself master of masterful corporations. The creation of national commissioners of railroads, in addition to the older state commissions, involves a very important and delicate extension of administrative functions. Whatever hold of authority state or federal governments are to take upon corporations, there must follow cares and responsibilities which will require not a little wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Such things must be studied in order to be well done. And these, as I have said, are only a few of the doors which are being opened to offices of government. The idea of the state and the consequent ideal of its duty are undergoing noteworthy change; and “the idea of the state is the conscience of administration.” Seeing every day new things which the state ought to do, the next thing is to see clearly how it ought to do them.

This is why there should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness. This is one reason why there is such a science.

Wilson looked to European models (as Progressives still do):

But where has this science grown up? Surely not on this side [of] the sea. Not much impartial scientific method is to be discerned in our administrative practices. The poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, sinecurism, and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington forbid us to believe that any clear conceptions of what constitutes good administration are as yet very widely current in the United States. No; American writers have hitherto taken no very important part in the advancement of this science. It has found its doctors in Europe. It is not of our making; it is a foreign science, speaking very little of the language of English or American principle. It employs only foreign tongues; it utters none but what are to our minds alien ideas. Its aims, its examples, its conditions, are almost exclusively grounded in the histories of foreign races, in the precedents of foreign systems, in the lessons of foreign revolutions. It has been developed by French and German professors, and is consequently in all parts adapted to the needs of a compact state, and made to fit highly centralized forms of government; whereas, to answer our purposes, it must be adapted, not to a simple and compact, but to a complex and multiform state, and made to fit highly decentralized forms of government. If we would employ it, we must Americanize it, and that not formally, in language merely, but radically, in thought, principle, and aim as well. It must learn our constitutions by heart; must get the bureaucratic fever out of its veins; must inhale much free American air…

…in spite of our vast advantages in point of political liberty, and above all in point of practical political skill and sagacity, so many nations are ahead of us in administrative organization and administrative skill. Why, for instance, have we but just begun purifying a civil service which was rotten full fifty years ago? To say that slavery diverted us is but to repeat what I have said — that flaws in our constitution delayed us.

Of course all reasonable preference would declare for this English and American course of politics rather than for that of any European country. We should not like to have had Prussia’s history for the sake of having Prussia’s administrative skill; and Prussia’s particular system of administration would quite suffocate us. It is better to be untrained and free than to be servile and systematic. Still there is no denying that it would be better yet to be both free in spirit and proficient in practice. It is this even more reasonable preference which impels us to discover what there may be to hinder or delay us in naturalizing this much-to-be-desired science of administration.

We may find his technocratic idealism tragic and misguided, since we know his efforts did not result in that decentralized, responsive American-style civil service he had envisioned. Wilson admired the Prussian social welfare state, and the implementation of many of its features — government healthcare, government pension schemes, and centralized public schools to train good workers amenable to state guidance — became the Progressive program for the succeeding decades, with today’s Progressives continuing to promote universal pre-K and government-run healthcare as central goals over a hundred years later. Wilson blamed that stodgy old Constitution for holding back progress, which he thought could be achieved through “scientific administration” of government which would leave citizens “free in spirit and proficient in practice.” Where, in practice, implementation of his ideas created an underclass of citizens so unproficient as to lose their freedom to dependency and addiction.

Wilson responded to critics who argued civil servants would be unaccountable:

And let me say that large powers and unhampered discretion seem to me the indispensable conditions of responsibility. Public attention must be easily directed, in each case of good or bad administration, to just the man deserving of praise or blame. There is no danger in power, if only it be not irresponsible. If it be divided, dealt out in shares to many, it is obscured; and if it be obscured, it is made irresponsible. But if it be centred in heads of the service and in heads of branches of the service, it is easily watched and brought to book.

I know that a corps of civil servants prepared by a special schooling and drilled, after appointment, into a perfected organization, with appropriate hierarchy and characteristic discipline, seems to a great many very thoughtful persons to contain elements which might combine to make an offensive official class, — a distinct, semi-corporate body with sympathies divorced from those of a progressive, free-spirited people, and with hearts narrowed to the meanness of a bigoted officialism. Certainly such a class would be altogether hateful and harmful in the United States. Any measure calculated to produce it would for us be measures of reaction and of folly….

But to fear the creation of a domineering, illiberal officialism as a result of the studies I am here proposing is to miss altogether the principle upon which I wish most to insist. That principle is, that administration in the United States must be at all points sensitive to public opinion. A body of thoroughly trained officials serving during good behavior we must have in any case: that is a plain business necessity. But the apprehension that such a body will be anything un-American clears away the moment it is asked, What is to constitute good behavior? For that question obviously carries its own answer on its face. Steady, hearty allegiance to the policy of the government they serve will constitute good behavior. That policy will have no taint of officialism about it. It will not be the creation of permanent officials, but of statesmen whose responsibility to public opinion will be direct and inevitable.

Bureaucracy can exist only where the whole service of the state is removed from the common political life of the people, its chiefs as well as its rank and file. Its motives, its objects, its policy, its standards, must be bureaucratic. It would be difficult to point out any examples of impudent exclusiveness and arbitrariness on the part of officials doing service under a chief of department who really served the people, as all our chiefs of departments must be made to do. It would be easy, on the other hand, to adduce other instances like that of the influence of Stein in Prussia, where the leadership of one statesman imbued with true public spirit transformed arrogant and perfunctory bureaux into public-spirited instruments of just government….

The ideal for us is a civil service cultured and self-sufficient enough to act with sense and vigor, and yet so intimately connected with the popular thought, by means of elections and constant public counsel, as to find arbitrariness of class spirit quite out of the question.

In hindsight, we know that accountability has been almost completely lost, with the recent failures at Federal agencies resulting in nothing more punishing than transfers or brief suspensions. We’ll go over how this came to be in the later chapter on public employee unions, which have made punishment of negligent or criminal employees, merely difficult under civil service rules, near-impossible. And as a result, there is close to zero response to efforts from above to make bureaucracies function efficiently and responsively. Public anger over scandals at the VA and the IRS have resulted in little or no reform and bureaucracies have grown larger and less responsive as their functions have multiplied until no one — not even Congress — can control them. Similarly, already heavily-regulated banks and mortgage agencies were nationalized (in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) or heavily fined after the financial crisis of 2008, but only one banker spent time in jail. Bankers as a class had become as immune from prosecution as civil servants.

And our politics are now dominated by a government Leviathan supported and supporting “a distinct, semi-corporate body with sympathies divorced from those of a progressive, free-spirited people, and with hearts narrowed to the meanness of a bigoted officialism” — unaccountable regulators, civil servants, unionized public employees, and regulated big businesses protected from upstart competition.

Progressives had good intentions — directed by Science and molding flawed human beings into more virtuous citizens by edict and government training, the enlightened Administration would shepherd the flock to a brighter, healthier future. The Progressive causes — Prohibition, eugenics, antitrust, the Federal Reserve system, centralized public schooling, Social Security and Medicare — have all been implemented, and while the most flawed (Prohibition, eugenics) were quickly abandoned and renounced, many remain with us, rooted so deeply in our society that major change seems impossible. Too many vested interests and public employees depend on them, and voters are more and more likely to be dependent as well, and so unwilling to risk voting for any reforms. But as Herb Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop,” and the current worldwide debt crisis will forcibly dismantle these systems as the money to support them in their current form evaporates. This seems to be the inevitable result of universal laws of bureaucratic growth in democratic systems, the kind of systemic corruption the Founding Fathers warned against when they set up what they hoped would remain a limited republican government.

[4] “A Revolutionary Discovery in China,”
Ian Johnson, April 21, 2016. The New York Review of Books.

A Revolutionary Discovery in China

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More reading on other topics:

Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Selective Outrage
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour

On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:

Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism

The greatest hits from (Science Fiction topics):

Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Selective Outrage
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare

More reading on the military:

US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
US Military: The Desegration Experience
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy

Leave a Reply