The Legitimacy Crisis and the New Progressivism

By Brown, Peter G. | Public Administration Review, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Legitimacy Crisis and the New Progressivism


Brown, Peter G., Public Administration Review


Those of us who educate for public service need to understand the indirect role we have played in fueling the present governmental legitimacy crisis. As an antidote, I urge here a regrounding and rethinking of the enlightenment agenda of human improvement. This agenda includes a reconstruction of the idea of government as part of a portfolio of means for improving the human condition.

The Legitimacy Crisis

The widespread crisis in government legitimacy now sweeping the United States and many other industrialized democracies has many manifestations. Its most extreme form is in the militia movements that capture the headlines with devastating acts, but the less dramatic examples may be even more important. These include threats to Department of Interior employees trying to do their jobs on public lands, hatred of the police, candidates who get elected primarily because they run against government, and widespread tax revolts that have swept our nation.

My thesis is that those of us who educate for public service have, through the best of intentions, played an important contributory role in this crisis. In addition, the research community from both the liberal and conservative parts of the political spectrum has fueled these disastrous fires, but in different ways. Many of my concerns have to do with the role that has been played by the research institutions and the teaching programs that make up the National Association of Schools of Public Administration (NASPAA) and the Association of Public Policy and Management (APPAM).

Of course, the legitimacy crisis has many roots: economic performance and dislocation, a corrupt campaign finance system, indecisive and illegitimate wars, and poor government performance. Yet we have fed these roots in more ways than we customarily think. We have made the legitimacy crisis worse in at least three ways: in our curricula we have often not emphasized the moral case for government, we have failed to offer a counter offensive to the right wing's attacks on government, and we have appropriated the language of the market.

What We Often Don't Teach (or didn't until recently)

The educational programs that are included in the NASPAA and the APPAM often offer no positive moral case for government, nor do they give adequate consideration to the ethical duties of public servants. Both public policy and public administration rest on "charters" that block such moral arguments. In the case of public administration it is the idea that administrators are carrying out an exogenously given, value laden agenda over which they have little or no control. This idea grew out of the reform movement in the early part of this century, a movement which sought to reduce corruption by isolating administration from politics.

In public policy, it is the legacy of positive social science that blocks most moral groundings for the state. The development of moral argument was taken to be outside the purview of a "scientific" agenda. While the intent was honorable--to bring the tools of science to the public sector to improve its efficiency--the results have been to undercut it by failing to articulate the moral case for government independent of the market.

Ironically, a crucial dimension of the science side of the positivist agenda is not well developed since most schools teach a theory of motivation grounded in microeconomics. This theory is mainly empty of content, saying only that persons seek to maximize the satisfaction of their preferences, yet offering no account of what those preferences are or how they are caused, much less what they ought to be. Without substantive understanding of behavior, which surely must include the perspective of evolutionary biology, we are unable to fashion public policies that are effective, thus further eroding public confidence in government.

What We Often Don't Do

A second way in which the academy has contributed to the undermining of the trust in government is that we have not responded to a concerted right wing attack on government with a powerful and credible theoretical defense of it. …

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