Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It


Y2K! The world waits anxiously to see what millennial mischief crops up. But at Basic Books the year 2000 is cause for celebration. Fifty years ago Basic was founded as a home for works by outstanding scholars on topics of wide importance and broad general interest. Over the years our authors have inspired and informed, pleased and provoked generations of readers; indeed, many Basic titles have changed the very culture from which they emerged.

To commemorate our fiftieth year, we are proudly reissuing a selection of our most distinguished books from the last half-century. Here, in brand new packages, with new introductions and editorial comments by leading contemporary figures, are ten exemplars of the intellectual vigor that is the hallmark of Basic Books: classic titles by John Bowlby, Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, Claude Levi-Strauss, James Q. Wilson, Clifford Geertz, and Michael Walzer. That books like these remain in print is itself a testament to their enduring value. By calling attention to their sustained presence we hope to introduce new readers to landmark works that will continue to roil cultural waters for decades to come.

Bureaucracy is the classic study of the way American government agencies work and how they can be made to work better. Examining a wide range of bureaucracies, including the Army, the FBI, the FCC, and the Social Security Administration, James Q. Wilson provides the first comprehensive, in-depth analysis of what government agencies do, why they function as they do, and how they might become more responsible and effective. With a new introduction by the author.


This book is an effort to explain why government agencies--bureaucracies--behave as they do. Though there may be lessons here for those interested in the behavior of government agencies abroad, the chief focus is on the United States. Toward the end of the book I offer a chapter's worth of speculation as to differences between American and foreign bureaucracies.

It is a book filled with details about police departments, school systems, the CIA, the military, the State Department, regulatory commissions, the Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service, and many others. The details are not there simply to make the book long, but rather to persuade the reader that bureaucracy is not the simple, uniform phenomenon it is sometimes made out to be. Reality often does not conform to scholarly theories or popular prejudices.

Historians and sociologists interested in the evolution of the modern state have had to come to grips with the bureaucratization of society. Max Weber was the founder of this tradition and, though many of his specific claims have been disproved, he still repays close reading. But such a reading will convey a view of bureaucracy as a monolith--a distinctive form of social organization which exists to increase the predictability of government action by applying general rules to specific cases. Its members possess the authority of office, enjoy lifelong careers and high social esteem, and operate the levers of power in a way that makes the bureaucracy an overtowering force against which citizens and politicians often struggle in vain.

This view is partly correct, but accepting it without substantial modification will leave the reader ill-equipped to understand some important features of American bureaucracies (and perhaps bureaucracies generally): Not only do many agencies fail to apply general rules to specific cases, they positively resist any effort to set forth their policies in the form of clear and general rules. In increasing numbers of agencies, members whose authority rests on the offices they hold are being eclipsed in power and significance by members whose authority derives from the professional . . .

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