Taylorism, John R. Commons, and the Hoxie Report

By Nyland, Chris | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Taylorism, John R. Commons, and the Hoxie Report


Nyland, Chris, Journal of Economic Issues


Frederick Winslow Taylor and the scientific management movement are linked in popular consciousness with the deskilling and systematic disempowering of workers. This association has caused difficulty for analysts who are aware that many pro-labor institutionalists embraced scientific management through the interwar years. Recent studies have helped to resolve this apparent anomaly by detailing the contribution made by scientific managers to the reduction of working hours, the democratization of public institutions, and the stabilization of employment [Nelson 1991; Nyland 1989, 1995; Schachter 1989, 1995]. This article adds to this revisionist literature by examining John R. Commons's assessment of scientific management. Commons knew Taylor personally and through much of his life was a critical observer of the movement Taylor inspired. Examination of his views helps clarify the nature of Taylorism and reveals new insights into Commons's character and thought. Given the predominance of the demonized view of scientific management, the paper is prefaced by an examination of some of the evidence underpinning this perspective. Attention is then given to the evolution of Commons through to 1916. Particular emphasis in the latter section is placed on the links between Taylor and the University of Wisconsin, the explication of Commons's views, and the latter's involvement in the production of Robert Hoxie's Scientific Management and Labor.

Scientific Management

Taylor's thought is best revealed in the series of papers he published between 1895 and 1915, in testimony he gave before investigative bodies, and in a summary of his ideas regarding labor prepared by Hoxie shortly before Taylor's death. Hoxie's summary, which was personally approved by Taylor, contains the following definition of scientific management:

Scientific management is a system devised by industrial engineers for the purpose of subserving the common interests of employers, workmen and society at large through the elimination of avoidable wastes, the general improvement of the processes and methods of production, and the just and scientific distribution of the product [Hoxie 1915, 140].

Most analysts ignore this definition and equate Taylorism merely with time study, wage incentives, and labor control. In reality, Taylor advocated wide-ranging and radical restructuring of organizations, be they manufacturing enterprises, government departments, universities, or churches. His restructuring centered on four principles: the gathering together, tabulation, and reduction to rules, laws, and formulae of all knowledge relating to the functioning of the enterprise; the scientific selection of employees and their subsequent progressive development; the bringing together of the science of organization and the scientifically selected and trained workers; and the development of friendly cooperation between management and employees. The first step in Taylor's plan for organizing a manufacturing workplace, for example, was the improvement and standardization of tools, machinery, and equipment, together with the systemization of the flow of production. These steps invariably involved the introduction of new storage systems, cost accounting, and a system of routine maintenance and repair. After these activities had been undertaken, the scientific manager was to consider the labor process, training of workers, and reorganization of sales and purchasing with a view to stabilizing employment and production.

The Taylor system, then, while it certainly involved time study and wage incentives, was in fact an all-embracing program for overhauling the structure of organizations. This program aimed to replace tradition and rule of thumb by science and planning. The centrality of this last element in Taylor's program was highlighted by Rexford Tugwell:

In the early eighties of the last century Frederick Winslow Taylor was a young man working in the shops of Midvale Steel.

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