Some Anomalies in the Deep History of U.S. Public Administration

By Van Riper, Paul P. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Some Anomalies in the Deep History of U.S. Public Administration


Van Riper, Paul P., Public Administration Review


The essay that follows can be subtitled "Ignorance, Error and Oddity in our Discourse about Public Administration in the United States." It is in the form of an old-fashioned essay, with few footnotes. After all, Woodrow Wilson's famous essay contains only two footnotes, neither of which meets modern predilections.

There are references here to Dwight Waldo, but my essay is not solely about him. I am, however, writing in the Waldo tradition, wedding historical emphasis with a critical view of what is going on in United States public administration. I am honoring Dwight Waldo by emulating his approach to public administration. We say that following another's model is the sincerest -- some might say the most devious -- form of flattery.

All disciplines have embedded within them a certain amount of dissonance. Thanks to a lifetime of perseverance on the part of our honoree at this conference, we have much less dissonance in public administration than we might have had. Nevertheless, a number of disciplinary peculiarities have characterized our development, and I propose to remind you of some that have come to my attention through the years. There are a dozen or so in all. I will start with error, move to oddity, and end with ignorance.

My first example of error relates inadvertently to Dwight Waldo, and it is one of the strangest. He bears no responsibility whatever for this error although he has told me that he knew about it. Perhaps a few of you remember that two books, both with "administrative state" in their titles, were published in 1948, one by Dwight Waldo and the other by the late Joseph Rosenfarb, a New York lawyer and labor relations specialist. That Rosenfarb's book, never widely read, is largely forgotten may be a consequence of the joint review of the two books by the distinguished Columbia University political scientist, Arthur Macmahon, in the summer 1948 issue of the Public administration Review. Incredibly, throughout his review, Macmahon cites Rosenfarb as Goldfarb! Not once does the reviewer or the editor of PAR, who commissioned the essay, identify Rosenfarb by his correct name. Equally peculiar is the lack of any correction or acknowledgment of error in succeeding issues of PAR.

If not Wilson and Weber, who were the founders?

Now for matters less intriguing but more important to the disciplines, let us turn to the founders of modern public administration in the United States. Max Weber and Woodrow Wilson are often listed or implied as founders. Yet many of our texts still fail to make clear that Weber's famous essay on bureaucracy was essentially unknown in the United States until its translation into English in the mid-1940s. As for Wilson, absolutely no one in mainstream social science referred to or quoted Wilson's essay between the time of its origin and the appearance of the first edition of Leonard White's public administration textbook in 1926. None of the other three textbooks in public administration published before World War 11 refer to Wilson at all. This implies that Wilson is important to public administration, but not as a founder of anything lasting. Actually, Dwight Waldo may be given primary credit for disinterring Wilson in his 1948 volume, The Administrative State, after absolving Wilson of much prior influence on our discipline.

If not Wilson and Weber, who were the founders? Only one thing is clear: public administration was not simply the application of business methods to government in the late nineteenth century or any other period of our history.

American business has been responsible for the development in administration, public and private, of finance and accounting, labor union relations, factory management in terms of mass production via Frederick Taylor, and, necessarily, salesmanship and marketing. Most other administrative concepts have come from government and gone into business. Woodrow Wilson was naive when he suggested in his famous essay of 1887 that government had much to learn from business.

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