Taylorism, Progressivism, and Rule by Experts

By Carson, Kevin A. | Freeman, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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Taylorism, Progressivism, and Rule by Experts


Carson, Kevin A., Freeman


The Progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century - the doctrine from which the main current of modern liberalism developed - is sometimes erroneously viewed as an "antibusiness" philosophy. It was anú-market to be sure, but by no means necessarily anti-business. Progressivism was, more than anything, managerialist.

The American economy after the Civil War became increasingly dominated by large organizations. I've written in The Freeman before about the role of the government in the growth of the centralized corporate economy: the railroad land grants and subsidies, which tipped the balance toward large manufacturing firms serving a national market ("The Distorting Effects of Transportation Snbsidies, November 2010, tinyurl.com/ 26pr9z2), and the patent system, which was a primary tool of consolidation and cartelization in a number of industries ("How 'Intellectual Property' Impedes Competition," October 2009, tinyurl.com/lqzehv).

These giant corporations were followed by large government agencies whose mission was to support and stabilize the corporate economy, and then by large bureaucratic universities, centralized school systems, and assorted "helping professionals" to process the "human resources" the corporations and State fed on. These interlocking bureaucracies required a large managerial class to administer them.

According to Rakesh Khurana of the Harvard Business School (in From Higher Aims to Hired Hands), the first corporation managers came from an industrial engineering background and saw their job as doing for the entire organization what they'd previously done for production on the shop floor. The managerial revolution in the large corporation, Khurana writes, was in essence an attempt to apply the engineer's approach (standardizing and rationalizing tools, processes, and systems) to the organization as a system.

And according to Yehouda Shenhav (Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution), Progressivism was the ideology of the managers and engineers who administered the large organizations; political action was a matter of applying the same principles they used to rationalize their organizations to society as a whole. Shenhav writes (quoting Robert Wiebe)

Since the difference between the physical, social, and human realms was blurred by acts of translation, society itself was conceptualized and treated as a technical system. As such, society and organizations could, and should, be engineered as machines that are constantly being perfected. Hence, the management of organizations (and society at large) was seen to fall within the province of engineers. Social, cultural, and political issues . . . could be framed and analyzed as "systems" and "subsystems" to be solved by technical means. . .

During this period, "only the professional administrator, the doctor, the social worker, the architect, the economist, could show the way." In turn, professional control became more elaborate. It involved measurement and prediction and the development of professional techniques for guiding events to predictable outcomes. The experts "devised rudimentary government budgets; introduced central, audited purchasing; and rationalized the structure of offices." This type of control was not only characteristic of professionals in large corporate systems. It characterized social movements,the management of schools, roads, towns, and political systems.

The managerialist ethos reflected in Progressivism emphasized transcending class and ideological divisions through the application of disinterested expertise. Christopher Lasch (The New Radicalism in America) wrote:

For the new radicals, conflict itself, rather than injustice or inequality, was the evil to be eradicated. Accordingly, they proposed to reform society ... by means of social engineering on the part of disinterested experts who could see the problem whole and who could see it essentially as a problem of resources .

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